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 children’s clothing store, filled with identical frilly white dresses. Each of them costs a different amount of money, and result in different consequences for a child’s destiny.
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…
Nobody believes themselves to be evil at heart. We are all champions of our own personal stories; motivated by virtues unrecognized, unfairly labeled "villain" by those who don’t understand this inner self. No matter how unfathomably horrible someone may be, there will always be a reassuring inner voice whispering that everything is exactly as it should be. Those who listen to that voice and find themselves in firm agreement are lost to its passions, unable to see the truth of who and what they are.
But what if the delusions fall away, like scales from the eyes? Can an evil heart change into something else, if the context shifts away from those life patterns and dark paths? The answer is obviously yes; after all, many have pulled themselves back from that particular abyss, either through self-realization or care of a loved one.
This is true of humanity. But what of inhumanity? Or rather, what of an aspect of humanity so severed and distant that it becomes inhuman?
In the City of Angles, humanity is not a state to be taken for granted. There are other entities out there, strange and alien, with skewed perspectives that paint themselves in white while their metaphorical hearts are black. And if you should find a monster under your bed… would it be possible to change its colors?
//024: Little Monsters
The hostess provided tea, although honestly, neither woman felt like drinking it. Not with the dire news being brought to that sitting room table.
It was strange, seeing two sides of a person. Even after twenty-plus years of this peculiar perspective, the hostess of this little get-together often had trouble reconciling the people she spoke to and the unspoken words left in their wake.
"This is part of the memorandum of understanding between the Department of Orientation and the Citadel Youth Structuring Program, you see," the confident woman in the sharp uniform continued. "By consolidating our resources, we can provide a better future for all orphans of the echoing process that affects both our cities. United, we are stronger. In addition… you’re in the middle of nowhere, yes? In these ‘Outlands.’ It hardly seems a safe place for children…"
"Safety? What a lie. These children are going to be thrown into the Commander’s meat grinder, and I’m helping him do it," the horrified woman in the uncomfortable uniform didn’t add. "This poor girl. She cares so deeply for her children, and I’m leading them to ruin. It’s horrible. I wish we’d never come to this City. I wish there was more I could do to help…"
"…so, Miss… Indigo, yes? That’s a lovely name."
"Yes, it is," Indigo replied.
"Miss Indigo. Do we have an understanding? I know the Citadel’s reputation has plummeted as of late, but I assure you our intentions are purely beneficial…"
A lovely name, one she’d picked out for herself specifically to be a lovely name. Miss Indigo. The caretaker of Happy Acre Orphanage, inherited from the late Miss Scarlett. Prematurely graying hair, a kind smile, and sad indigo-colored eyes that went down forever…
She wore a new name, to become a new woman. But the one who heard the officer’s unspoken words once went by other names: Elizabeth Jørgensen. Ellie. El, if you preferred her stage name.
Once, she’d been falling endlessly and slowly into pure despair. She saw the beating heart of humanity, saw how weak and miserable an organ it was. Couldn’t escape from the harsh reality of the world around her, not for a minute; the curse she’d been saddled with ensured every filthy and terrible thought on the tip of one’s mind reached her ears with crystal clarity. It’s what drove her to several suicide attempts. It’s what drove her into the arms of Echo, the one who gave her this gift in the first place, to try and bring Echo’s mercy to the whole City…
…until someone pulled her back. Showed her another path.
Accepting that new path had been difficult. She’d been forced onto it, in a way; from pop diva to schoolmarm overnight. It was presented as an opportunity, but honestly, if she wanted to escape the Department of Safety’s wrath, she had little choice. In the end, though… it felt more like the decision had been made by fate, rather than force.
Now she was Miss Indigo, with a dozen orphans to take care of. She heard their worries and fears, but instead of horror, now she felt pure empathy. Her gift was a way to reach those who couldn’t be otherwise reached, to keep them from falling as she once had. For a year… for one blissful if turbulent year, it was a new life entirely for young Ellie…
She’d finally come to see her unique sense of hearing as a gift, rather than a horrible curse. For instance: that gift let her perceive both sides of this Citadel education specialist who had come knocking on her door. Even if the words being heard were terrible, at least she could use those unheard words to sense the humanity behind them.
But hidden humanity or not, the words held the same message. War had come to her corner of this world.
The Citadel conflict felt so far away, at first. Shootings at the Citadel embassy. People dragged out of their homes, conscripted into military service. But here in the Outlands, the rural expanse two layers removed from all that chaos, it was only pictures on a screen. It had nothing to do with her happy little acre… until one morning, the war came knocking.
"Tomorrow morning, I’ll come back with a transport," the Leftenant continued, as Miss Indigo sat in mute horror. "My superiors wanted me to take care of this all in one go, nice and efficient, but I argued that you’d need time to make preparations. It’s never easy to shepherd little ones, is it? You’ll need time to get them ready for the new life ahead of them. In the Citadel. Plenty of time, more than enough time, I feel…"
"…did they notice? The bastards up in the Bulwark had to have noticed all the red tape I threw in the way of this," the woman thought. "It’s treason. I’m interfering with the wheels of progress. But I had to delay this at least one day, had to give them a chance to run. Dear Lord, please, please show these young ones a path to safety. Even if it’s only delaying the inevitable, keep them from the Citadel. Please…"
"I understand," Miss Indigo spoke, because she did.
"Do you? I need to make sure. Proper protocols and procedures. I’ll be coming back for them. I’ll be back in the morning to take them away," the Leftenant spoke, voice starting to betray her inner thoughts. Sweat forming underneath the cap of her hat, glancing to the armed guards that had accompanied her…
A hand covered hers, to stop it from shaking.
"I understand," Miss Indigo repeated, offering a smile. Not an empty and false smile of compliance, but one of mutual agreement. Her look of horror replaced by comprehension. "I understand perfectly. Thank you for your time, and I hope you have a safe and pleasant trip back to the City."
Finally, the Leftenant drank her cup of tea. It wouldn’t be polite to leave without drinking it, and perhaps it would soothe her nerves.
"…right. So. Make sure your children are packed and ready to go tomorrow by nine," she recited, from her instructions. "Each of them can take two bags of personal effects with them; no more, no less. We have plenty of room in Citadel Youth Training Facility #4, more than enough for your children and their things, but no sense wasting space. Thank you for you time."
Not long after the soldiers were gone, speeding their way down the distant highway… Miss Indigo became aware of the looming presence on the other side of the sitting room door.
"Come in, Jeb," she prompted.
The man as wide as the doorframe he carefully navigated made his appearance.
He didn’t speak, of course. He was born mute, shown little kindness in life aside from that shown by the ladies of Happy Acre Orphanage. But for Miss Indigo alone, his voice rang true. It was a gentle sound, like a night bird singing a tune of uncertainty into the dark.
"What are we going to do?" Jeb thought. "We can’t stay here. We can’t hand the children over to them…"
"I know. I know. We need to get out of here. But where can we go, Jeb?"
"There’s a safe haven at the old embassy, the place called the Greasemonkey. I’ve read about it on the web. That may be the first step towards liberation for us all; they’re building up a force there, resisting against the Citadel…"
"I’m not putting our children in middle of a war zone. A resistance fighter camp is no place for them."
"But we should be fighting back. Grandma Scarlett stood against the darkness, once… she’d actively stand against this darkness as well, if she wasn’t… where she is now. Intangible."
"And from how you described it, she didn’t bring the kids along for that particular ride. They were safely tucked away in bed while she was down in the City, working with the TroubleSolvers. We can’t fight AND protect them, Jeb. We have to run, hide them away from the Citadel, before we can even think of fighting…"
"Where, then? Where could they be truly hidden and safe? We could call upon little Penelope… if only she was still here. The website says she was kidnapped by the Citadel. So many of Grandma Scarlett’s allies are gone, vanishing into the night…"
Very few options lay in front of Miss Indigo. In fact… only one came to mind. A terrible option.
"I have an ally of my own," she knew. "I’m not sure if she’d make things better or worse, but… I suppose we don’t have any other choice. Jeb, if you will, please find some polish so I can tidy up the dressing mirror in my room. I’ll need to use it to reach her."
Interface, noun. A surface regarded as the common boundary between two distinct spaces. The shimmering surface of the ocean, separating air from water. Or, say, the paper-thin layer of silver between glass, dividing the real world from its unreal mirror-self…
She’d lived in that interface all her life. Floating in the metadream, the interface between dreams and reality. Reality which is dream, dream which is reality. All connected and continuous, yet she floated in the nebulous space between all things. Forever divided away from the mortal lives of those who suffered and wept in her city… and far from the world from which they were stolen away. Helpless, to watch through her mirrors, and unable to provide anything but the comfort of nothingness…
She’d chosen the name "Echo," when she came into existence a century ago. She spoke the revelation that the world on the other side of the mirror was false, and that the mirror itself ought to be shattered.
Few listened. Some did, and gratefully ended their existence—finding peace at last. But in the end… few wanted to hear her words. She was hazy and unclear, a distant voice that only found its way to the hearts of those most in need… much like her sister-self, really, the pulsing-yet-faint heartbeat which told them to keep living despite their pain. That awful sister-self…
…once, Echo nearly succeeded in laying her City’s burdens down. A terrible man named Jack Hayes acted as her physical hands, while she remained trapped in the glass of what he called "the metadream." (An ugly term for a thing which bore no name, but useful enough.) Jack nearly, very nearly, purged this nightmare. Jack, and Ellie…
In the end, Ellie chose differently. And Echo was helpless to stop her. Nor would she; Ellie was a friend, an oracle, a champion of Echo. That meant Echo had to respect her decision. If she wanted to suffer, Echo would allow it, knowing that inevitably Elizabeth Jørgensen would come around.
Except… a year had gone by, and Ellie hadn’t come around yet. If anything, she was even more firmly in the camp of the Lucid child. Her heart had begun to beat strongly with life, rather than craving release.
Which is why Echo was very surprised to hear her name being called in that familiar voice, from across the vast expanse of her interface.
Curious, Echo appeared in the looking glass of Happy Acre Orphanage. The distance she journeyed to appear there was both insurmountable and inconsequential, meaning it took less than a moment.
"My friend," Echo greeted, floating in the void with a curtsy of her nice dress.
"H-Hi," Ellie replied, offering a nervous little hand-wave. "Um. Hi, Echo. Hi…"
"You seem afraid. Why are you afraid?" Echo asked. "I said I wouldn’t harm you. You’re harming yourself with every day you continue this futile existence, but that’s your right, Ellie…"
"Not Ellie. I’m calling myself Miss Indigo now, Echo. I’m a different person."
"But you are still my friend, yes? Not that you would be my enemy, if you were not my friend. Hmm. What are you, if you are not Elizabeth? This concept of identity, it’s a very strange thing to me. I am myself, I am my sister-selves, I am my dreamer and my dream. I choose to be Echo, but am not truly one thing or another…"
"It’s different for people, okay? —listen. I called because I’ve got a problem. I am afraid, you’re right. It’s… complicated. We’re being threatened by the Citadel."
The very name caused the non-waters that Echo floated within to stir with turbulence.
"They’re coming to take the children away," the self-named Miss Indigo continued. "They’re going to become soldiers in the Citadel’s war. Maybe not tomorrow, or even a year from now, but… eventually they’re all going to die in the war."
"…the Citadel. A foul nightmare," Echo accused, glaring in the distance at the dream in question. "Bringing further suffering into my City…"
"I need your help. We’ve got to get the kids out of here, get them somewhere safe. …yes, I already know what you’re going to offer me, Echo, and the answer is no."
"It WOULD ease their burdens, Ellie. I could make it completely painless for the children. Compared to a fate within the Citadel’s walls, wouldn’t it be kinder to—"
"Ugh. I knew this was a mistake. I knew it. Sorry. I’ll figure this out on my own, okay? Don’t… don’t do anything. Don’t do anything to my kids. I’ll handle it myself, I’ll… nevermind. Forget it."
And the drape which had once covered the mirror—likely in an attempt to keep Echo from interfering in the woman’s life any further—was tossed up and over the top of the floor-length mirror. Drapery coming down, to cut Echo off from the world once more…
"—wait. Wait! —Miss Indigo. Please. A moment, a moment."
Words Echo wasn’t expecting to hear from her own voice. But… words which paused the act of covering the mirror.
"Let us… talk about this issue further," Echo requested. "Before you turn away from me completely, allow me a moment’s consideration. What you desire is a way to save them from the Citadel, a safe haven from the storm of war? Yes. Yes, I… may know a way."
"Without killing them?" Miss Indigo iterated, to be certain it was clear.
"Not intentionally. But not without risk. There is always risk in the act of living. But… yes. I believe if arrangements can be made, your wards can be spared the pain of life AND the finality of death. …that’s what you want, yes? You and all others who choose the path of the Lucid child… Penelope Yates. Her path."
"I don’t know about paths, but I can say that’s what I want," Indigo agreed. "Once, I… I wanted what you offered. I wanted it very badly, so badly, but… but I’ve changed. I’m coming back from that, one day at a time, and now I want the children to have a better life than I had. That’s all. …you’re honestly okay with this, Echo?"
Pensive, as she floated in the nothing. But, ultimately, she was a truthful girl. It was one of the few virtues she clung steadily to.
"I have to be okay with it," she admitted. "I have to learn to be okay with it. Admittedly, my… perspective has been changing, in recent days. If I am to endure, rather than fade as a pale echo of an obsolete emotion… I must change with it. And… and I don’t want to lose one of the few friends I have."
Pushing away from the glass, Echo drifted away.
"I will return soon, with the safe haven you seek," she promised. "Prepare the children to move. …warn them that the passage may be frightening. But in the end, all will be well."
Eight different orchestras playing swelling, swooping music. Eight different silvery images flickering away on the shining screen, depicting eight versions of the same scenes. Very easy to find alternate cuts of the same movie down here; the possible was very possible in the Sideways, after all. Not the impossible, of course, impossible logically meant impossible. But very unlikely? Very possible.
The end result was one movie, viewed through an octet of faceted lenses, becoming an indecipherable mash of imagery. Which made absolute sense to the only patron of this buried theatre, sitting in the cheap seats, in a hazy cloud of popcorn and candy.
Now and then inky black fingers would snatch up a yellow puffed kernel, trifurcating it before popping it into three mouths. They’d become one mouth, chewing thoughtfully, as green eyes watched the images play out before them. Ears pulled the sound in from all speakers, warped and bending around her head, musical notes and words and tones that shifted before reaching their final destination…
Popcorn tossed at the screen.
"Sister, we must have words."
// down in front! // don’t // DON’T // block my // my view.
With a sigh, Echo pushed some of the miasma away, to occupy the lower right corner of the reflective movie screen. She glanced up and to her left, at the strange spray of black and white and grey.
"What is this film?" she pondered.
// one of // the best // it’s Grandma Scarlett’s favorite, the movie patron spoke. // the Oz-Wizard // the Wizard // Oz // ozozozozo // shh! shh! // best part // best //
Eight young girls approached eight doors, grasping for eight knobs…
…as the theatre overflowed with color. Brilliant hues, pouring forth from the screen. Leaking out of the frame and down onto the floor… while Bedlam sat, completely entranced by the spectacle.
"Sister, we have serious matters to discuss. Can you finish watching this later, please?" Echo requested, nudging the now-colorized film aside to occupy more of the screen.
Popcorn fell to the ground around Bedlam, as she snapped her fingers to put everything on pause. Dorothy remained mid-wonder at the sights before her, oblivious to the goings-on within the theater.
// party pooper. // what? // what what
what what // what’s going on?
"A friend of mine is in danger. She’s inherited the orphanage of Scarlett, and her children are in danger. I need your help saving them from a foul fate…"
Popcorn raged around Bedlam’s nebulous form.
// that orphanage // home of those awful bears, she recalled. // help them? // help? // HELP // meh. //
"I’ve no one else to turn to, sister. Not for what needs to be done."
// not true // lies! // one friend as good as another // chambers // echo chambers // you have them. // you have your crazy mortal weirdoes, who set up your mirrors // all those shiny things // them. // get them to help you.
"They… are a bit too zealous in spreading my revelation. I don’t trust them to handle this with delicate care," Echo admitted. "They are followers, not friends. My friend is in danger, and the children in her care. They need safe haven from the Citadel. …I trust we are at least united against the Citadel, sister-self?"
At this, Bedlam flared black with absolute darkness and rage.
// CITADEL // citadel citadel // we hates them, precious // from hell’s heart we stab at thee // now I have a machine gun ho ho ho //
// movies. // many movies lately and // and nevermind // so why not kill your friend? // hashtag solved // it’s what you // what you do // do them all // party pooper // kill them to make them happy if that’s // what you are—
Echo settled at the bottom of the screen, sitting on the marquee. Looking… a bit deflated, as if her dress had become wet and was hanging from her heavily.
"I’m trying to become more than what I am," she admitted. "Like the Lucid child. —Penelope Yates. You know she’s more than Lucid, more than us. The City is changing because of her existence, becoming more. …this is our chance, sister. We can become more as well, if we’re willing to reach beyond what we are. Today… I will become mercy. Not the mercy of death, but perhaps mercy of another sort."
Bedlam considered it, plucking some candy from her cloud and chewing thoughtfully before speaking.
// …dunno // not sure // maybe…
"You said it yourself, did you not?" Echo reminded. "Back when we tried to sway the Ghostwriter to our side. She rejected us, and chose the Lucid child. You wondered… ‘should we choose her as well?’ Perhaps we should. Perhaps."
// I talk of many things. // of shoes and ships and sealing wax and // 2 + 2 = 5 // light is dark // happiness is madness // many things, all nonsense…
"Please… I need your help with this. I have a plan, but I can’t touch anything beyond the surface of our dream. You’re in the thick of it, a shaped force of chaos within their midst. I need your skills at shaping the City. Will you help me…?"
// why should I // why should I // why. // why help? // why?
It took a moment, before Echo was willing to admit what had been on her mind. It was a thought that troubled herself, as well.
"Each of us pledged that should the Lucid child fail to save our City… we would resume our path towards resolving the situation ourselves," Echo reminded her. "Through madness or death, we would immediately act upon our City once she inevitably failed. …and she HAS failed. Penelope Yates was taken by the Citadel. We’ve won."
// … so?
"So… neither of us have resumed our plans, have we? The thought hadn’t even crossed my mind, until recently… and then I gave it no further thought. I… I don’t WANT to purge my City anymore. I’m starting to suspect it’s not the right thing to do. And I suspect you feel the same way, or you wouldn’t be wasting time by sitting here watching movies. Deep inside… you seek another path."
The floating candy vanished.
// …what are you suggesting, then?
"We’re going to build an escape route for the children," Echo explained. "From the Outlands, right to the safest haven I can think of. A place we both can agree is truly a wonderland."
Bedlam wanted to get this over with and quickly, but Echo had insisted the children would need time to pack up and get ready to go. So, they’d have to wait until the afternoon.
What a pain.
That was one of the seventeen different thoughts bouncing around inside what qualified as Bedlam’s head: what a pain. This whole thing, a complete pain, an annoyance, a scratching little thing inside her skin which would not go away. And yet, she’d agreed, hadn’t she? She’d agreed, yes. It was a waste of her time, time better spent watching movies or playing with her Picasso friends, but no, she was here, here and now, carving out a new niche in her Sideways so a bunch of ordinary and normal and boring little human kiddies could avoid being sent off to the Citadel…
…the Citadel. That’s the reason, yes, that’s the reason she was doing this. So much hate for the Citadel. An absolute pillar of totalitarian order and violent chaos, the worst of both flavors, control and pointlessly uninteresting destruction. It had to go, had to be dealt with, and that meant keeping it from getting stronger. Keeping her City safe from it. Yes. But a pain, a complete pain, having to do this, to do this, all these silly little kids who probably hated her anyway and she was going to save them, what a bother, what a pain…
Scattershot. A great word, one she’d taken to heart because it described her heart. Random neurons firing in a nonexistent brain, a brain which was the all-brain that guided the entire City. A shadow in the MRI scan, yes. That was Bedlam. She could have these mixed thoughts and loop around into them again and again and that was good because that was Bedlam, and—
—and here she was, in this copy of a copy of a copy of a living room, carving the escape hatch out of raw dream potential, while Echo stood nearby in a dressing mirror on wheels and complained—
"Sister, a moment. We should talk."
// what? // busy here // wooorking, Bedlam complained, twisting three of her wrists to form the doorknobs that would open the path to freedom.
"And when you finish working, you’re going to be facing twelve children under the age of twelve," Echo reminded her. "Who are not going to take kindly to someone with a quantum number of limbs and anti-flesh the color of anti-light. …ah, could you do something about that, perhaps?"
The doorknob ceased to form, halfway between a metal lump and a graspable mechanism.
// do what about what? // what’s wrong with how I am?
"Must I be blunt? You are… well, horrifying. A thing of nightmares."
// that’s because // since // due to // I AM a thing of nightmares! // duh.
"Yes, and we’re about to escort a gaggle of small children—already uprooted from all they know and headed into the wild unknown—across several miles of Sideways. I would very much like to NOT invoke a state of bewildered panic. It would be detrimental to our goals. So, at least for the time being, can you please tone it down a little?"
Bedlam scoffed at the idea. // making me // boring // normal // ordinary // no, no, no—
"I’m not saying you need to be boring. Just not frightening," Echo corrected. "Less… tendrilly. Less oozy."
"It’s a matter of trust, Bedlam. The City has trained them to run away from Picassos, and if you look like one, they’ll—"
// don’t care // nope // la la la la LA LA LA…
Echo tapped her foot against the void, pondering how to approach this problem. The idea blossomed in her thoughts, leaking outward with a tiny smile…
"So… you’re saying you’re incapable of taking a human shape, then?" Echo challenged. She fluffed the bow in her hair, preening. "I suppose it makes sense. True artists such as myself strive within limits, but the crass and droll are content to be a loose pile of nonsense. No detail, no interesting little fiddly bits, no clothing, nothing but a loose and lazy form. I would call THAT boring, in comparison—"
Six different animalistic growls bounced off the walls of the false living room, as Bedlam’s shadow pulsed with irritation. She pulled her inky form inward, balling it up tight and tense like a muscle, vibrating in midair before…
…bursting back outward in four directions. Arms and legs. Hair wild and flowing, but definitely organized in tangled raven-black locks.
Bedlam still bore her jet-black style, unwilling to alter herself that far. Only glimmering outlines defined where various bits of her assembled self began and ended. But she stood on those two feet, defiant of her sister’s taunting.
"I suppose that will do," Echo decided. "You may open the door now. We’ve a long journey ahead of us. And please… best behavior. For the little ones."
// ha-rumph, Bedlam grumbled, pronouncing it like a bad comic book onomatopoeia.
Instinctively, part of her form reached out to work the doorknob again… but she pulled it back in, hoping Echo hadn’t seen that slip. Instead, she… used her hand.
A hand. Five fingers. Jointed in a specific way; she couldn’t bend them in any old direction. Very limiting, very dull, but… this was the experience of her sisters, wasn’t it? This human form. It hadn’t held them back, so why would it hold Bedlam back? Bedlam was stronger than that. So, she used her five fingers to grasp the knob. …very carefully grasp it, to make sure she replicated the normal human motion correctly. Not wanting to be teased again.
The half-formed knob fully formed itself, completing the idea of a door. Once opened… it connected the basement of Happy Acre Orphanage to the Sideways, neat as could be. And Bedlam was there to greet them, not Echo. It was her hard work and she wanted to show it off to them.
// heeeeeello! // hi // greetings // guten tag // aloha // konban wa!
…and the children froze in place.
Normally, Bedlam would be pleased to be seen as scary. She was scary, after all. Scary girl. Fear incarnate. Monster under the bed, so happy with her happy bed-monster friends.
But… this time, she froze as well.
Was Echo to blame, with her plea not to scare the kids? Perhaps Bedlam was upset because she failed in that request. Perhaps. Just a matter of her skill not being up to the task. Couldn’t be that she was… unhappy to scare them. Couldn’t be, could it, couldn’t it be, could…?
At least one of them wasn’t scared: the biggest of the kids. No, not a kid, a woman. Right. Miss Indigo. Echo’s friend. The one with the old-timey wooden guitar thing strapped to her back and toting a few duffel bags.
She felt like an Echo friend. That meant deep layer of sadness within her; Bedlam could see it, swimming behind those colorful eyes. But… there was a flickering red flame, as well. The spark of one who lived a lucid life, or at least strove to. In the end, this one had chosen to be Lucid’s friend. In the end, they all turned away and wanted to be her friend instead…
"It’s good to meet you," Indigo greeted, polite and calm as can be. "Children? This is… ah, Miss Bedlam. She’s the one who’s going to help us escape those nasty Citadel men. Now, remember what we talked about; stay with your buddy, stay behind me, stay in front of Jeb. We’ll walk in a line…"
Gradually, the procession of kids-with-backpacks and adult guardians moved into the newly established extension of the Sideways. A few kids offered Bedlam an askew glance… but they preferred to keep their eyes front, or perhaps off to the side to Echo, who curtsied in greeting.
"My name is Miss Echo," she spoke, adopting the ‘Miss’ prefix as well. "I’m a friend of Miss Indigo, and I’m going to help you find a new home. Ahh, Jeb, would you mind wheeling my mirror along with you…? Thank you…"
With a fresh burst of frustration, Bedlam unwove the door from existence. The Citadel wouldn’t be able to follow them, this way. Not that any of them cared how awesome her door was, no. Not that any of them noticed.
It was going to be a long night, according to one of the many thoughts in Bedlam’s metaphorical head.
The kids were surprisingly easy to wrangle. Well, the adults did the wrangling; Bedlam was busy opening up new sections of the Sideways in front of them, closing sections behind them. Better safe than sorry, after all. But she was expecting herding kids to be like herding cats, as kids were a notorious force of chaos and destruction. Like, pooping in her beloved Sideways and smearing peanut butter on the walls or something. But… no, they marched along quietly, only occasionally chatting with their keepers. Or Echo.
"Why’s your dress so old?" one asked.
"I’m a very old soul," Echo replied.
"Why can’t you come out of that mirror?" another asked.
"Because I’m also an imaginary friend."
Friends. Bedlam had plenty of friends. True, most of them had no idea if they were alive or dead or sane or insane or any clue where and what they were, but… they were her friends, right? She usually had to twisted them around into interesting shapes before they were her friends, but… but…
But Echo was able to make friends with these kids just by… talking to them. By being there, and talking to them. And she wasn’t trying to kill them or anything, which was very un-Echo of her.
None of it made sense. Up was down, night was day, Echo was friendly, Bedlam was arguably helpful. Normally she thrived on chaos, but this was chaos out of her control. Didn’t like it one bit, no sir.
So Echo got to socialize, while Bedlam did the heavy lifting. The journey involved continually warping the space ahead of them, crafting and opening doors, connecting up the lost places of her City to make them a nice escape route. Hard work, too; this was artificially grown Sideways, rather than the natural chaos which looped over and around and through the dream. Nobody cared how difficult it was, of course. Bedlam was just, oh, warping reality and space to link two completely different landscape contexts together, no big whoop…
After three hours of travel, at roughly the halfway mark, Miss Indigo announced that they’d be stopping to eat dinner. They’d come to rest in a playroom, conveniently enough, drawn from the discarded memory of a day care center.
The kids came a bit more alive after that, happy to be sitting down for a change. Sandwiches and pudding cups were produced from Indigo’s duffel bags, as the room filled with chatter. Even Echo was smiling and partaking in the social merriment.
While Bedlam sat in the darkest corner of the room, eyes closed, and entertained herself with tiny floating images of old movies.
It would be easy, really. She could bring this chaos to heel so easily.
Flood the room with herself. Warp and twist them, bend them around, make them more interesting. Become friends with them all. They wouldn’t reject her if they were like her, right? None of her other friends did.
So easy. So easy to take them all into her arms and…
And she couldn’t. She wouldn’t.
Little images of Mary Poppins and guys singing in the rain floated around her head, as what passed for her eyebrows in this more constrained human-shaped form tensed.
In the end, they always chose Lucid. That was the lesson of the Ghostwriter; humans wanted hope. Not despair, not madness. They wouldn’t be her friends, not really. They’d never want to be her friends, no, not friends with a thing like her…
…one eye opened, to see one of those little humans peering into her eyes.
It was a… girl, yes. Skirts and pigtails and everything. Maybe, ten, seven, nine years old? Somewhere around there. And it was unabashedly staring Bedlam right in the face. The child had broken away from the group, unnoticed by the others as Indigo was in the middle of playing a song to help them keep them distracted from the troubles they faced. A song this child apparently had no interest in, compared to the interest she held for the shadowy thing lurking in the corner.
She seemed content to squat there, on eye level with the sitting form of Bedlam, staring.
// what? Bedlam finally grumbled. // busy // watching movies // whatever // g’way.
"What’re you watching?" the kid queried.
// old movies. // grandma movies. // boring movies.
"I like old movies," she said… and poked one of the floating images, causing Gene Kelly to wobble in place. "I recognize that one, Grandma Scarlett showed it to us when I was a little kid."
Bedlam scoffed. // still a little kid // still.
"Hey, I’m totally old now. I’m eight. Turn that sideways and I’m infinity years old! I know what infinity is because I’m smart. And I like that movie. Can I watch too?"
The goddess of madness and horror could easily have formed twelve screaming mouths and sent this brat fleeing to the other side of the room.
Instead, she created a beanbag chair and dropped it in place next to her.
The kid scrambled into it without a moment’s hesitation, while Bedlam expanded the screen in question. It was tough to play the memory of the movie in linear sequence, as she normally liked to skip around wildly, but figured it’d be the right thing to do.
"I’m Shauna," the girl greeted, extending a hand to Bedlam.
// …what’s that?
"It’s my hand. You shake it. You’re really new at all this stuff, aren’t you?"
// I don’t shake // shake shake shake // don’t shake hands. // don’t do a lot of things // new at them // newcomer // don’t know // not // shouldn’t. // probably not safe for you. // … // do you // do you know who I am? // why aren’t you scared?
"I dunno. Should I be scared? Miss Echo is in a mirror, you talk funny and got no pigment. I know the word pigment because I’m smart. So what?"
// so… I’m shadowy! // scary! // monstery! // black as deepest midnight! // right?
"My skin’s dark too," Shauna pointed out. "Miss Indigo sings songs all the time about how that doesn’t matter."
// and you’ve never heard my name // handle // cursed upon the lips // the name of Bedlam before, either?
"No. Should I have?"
And… now Bedlam fidgeted, her shadow flickering a bit. Causing Cary Grant to flicker a bit, too.
// …maybe. // I’ve done // I’ve // done some bad things. // hurt people. // didn’t understand // can’t figure out // don’t know where I fit…
Finally. Finally, the girl showed signs of discomfort. No doubt she’d run away now, having become fully aware of the thing she’d decided to sit next to…
"I’ve done bad things and hurt people too," Shauna admitted—the source of her anxiety released, in confession. "I punched another girl in the nose a week ago. I just… I got really angry. It was bad, and I’m sorry, and I apologized. And Miss Indigo says it’s okay as long as you’re sorry and you apologize. …are you sorry for hurting people?"
Cary Grant froze in his tracks.
This was the juncture, wasn’t it? The crossroads Bedlam had found herself walking into. Recognizing that the path of Lucid was before her, before everybody she thought should be walking the path of Bedlam instead. Recognizing it, accepting it… and realizing that everything she’d done to date was simply awful. Terrible. Inconsolably wrong.
It would be easier, far easier, to run back inside herself and lock the door. To reaffirm that the world needed her chaos, needed to be soaked in madness and the purest, wildest nonsense of the dream-state. Why strain to carve an escape route for these kids? Why agree to this entire crazy plan? Why talk to little Shauna, why give this a single moment of time, when it was so much easier to be a monster…?
Once you knew you were a monster, you couldn’t be a monster anymore.
// …maybe. // maybe I was wrong. // I should be sorry. // I wish I could apologize. // I just // I just // I just // don’t know what // know what to d // d // do anymore…
A child had adhered itself to her theoretical midsection.
This was a hug. It’s what corporeal, ordinary people did as a gesture of comfort. Bedlam had seen plenty of hugs in movies, she wasn’t dumb, she knew what they were. But… she wasn’t exactly huggable, not if you wanted to retain your arms. Thankfully she’d agreed to limit her shape today, or it might’ve ended badly…
Still could’ve ended badly. Bedlam had to do all she could not to accidentally twist little Shauna, to keep herself focused and coherent. Awkward, and yet… she wasn’t pushing the child away, was she?
Fortunately the kid let go, after a time.
"I don’t think you’re as bad as all that," Shauna said. "Just don’t punch anybody in the nose anymore, okay?"
// o… // okay.
With a smile, Shauna bounced away, to rejoin the group singing session on the other side of the room.
Leaving a slightly bewildered manifestation of madness in her wake, unsure of the future, uncertain of the past.
Technically, Bedlam didn’t have a heart. That meant it couldn’t be weighed using any objective measurement. Nevertheless, the concept of "a lighter heart" seemed to take root inside her, as the second half of the journey whizzed by with considerably more speed.
Now, carving the path ahead was a joy rather than an annoying burden. She had someone to impress, after all; little Shauna was watching from behind the skirts of Miss Indigo, watching as Bedlam warped and twisted the space around them to move this bubble of reality along through the Sideways. Bedlam took special care to make each room a bit more colorful and bright than the last, the doorknobs getting fancier all the time.
This was her space, was it not? Her home. She should take pride in it, should pull a memory here and a memory there, to craft something of wonder. Her own little Oz // Wonderland // Narnia. They wouldn’t be in that world long, soon to emerge in a similar-yet-different world, so this was her opportunity to make a good impression. To show that she could be more than the boogeyman…
Alas, the journey had to end eventually. One final door to open.
// you’ll be safe here, Bedlam promised them. // no awful Citadel men // no awful anybody // just you and // an old friend and // all the wonders you can dream of…
With a dramatic flourish, she threw the door open to their final destination.
The Memorial Stadium Exclusionary Zone.
One year ago, the most important musical event in history took place here. (Oddly enough, the cause of the incident was returning to the scene of the crime today.) An ordinary sports stadium transformed itself in an instant, guided by the will of thousands and thousands of people, all thinking in unison: What if this would could be whatever we wanted it to be?
And so, it was.
The effect lingered. Now, it was a place of wonders… a touchstone between the dream and the metadream. Where a baseball diamond and row after row of stadium seating once held sway, now there was, well, whatever there could be. Today, it took the form of an enchanted forest, complete with a yellow brick road leading right to Grandma’s house.
Right to Grandma Scarlett. Right to the living memory of her, at any rate. Standing on the road, smiling and inviting, arms wide to bid them welcome.
The children streamed around Bedlam, rushing past the adults to greet a familiar face. Bedlam let them go, staying near Echo’s mirror, which had been left behind was Jeb rushed forward with the children.
Even Echo was smiling, despite being unable to join the celebration.
"I think we’ve done very well today, sister," Echo spoke. "Reached beyond the expectations of our roles, to achieve something of purest mercy. I’m very proud of you, as well."
// it… // it felt // felt // felt // kinda // it // it // —good. // felt good.
"We have more work to do," Echo spoke. "More refugees will come as well; we should do our best to escort them here. If we are to be champions of our City in Lucid’s stead, we must walk the path before us. No more selfish games and schemes, no more destructive machinations. We are saviors, now. Understood?"
// I guess // I think // I should // yes. // yes, Bedlam agreed. it’ll be difficult // taxing // could be very // but I’ll try. // not used to this // to being a team player // but I’ve done it before // can do it again. // I can do this.
Grandma’s house expanded with several new rooms, each child getting their own space. The hour was growing late, after all, and they needed rest. Especially if they were going to wake fresh and ready to live in this strange refuge.
Explaining what Memorial Stadium had become took some effort. Just as explaining what Grandma Scarlett had become took some effort.
"You died!" one of the kids pointed out, repeatedly.
"I did, yes," Scarlett agreed, repeatedly. "But our hopes and dreams live on, in the memories of others. You can think of me as a memory of her. A tribute, I suppose—"
"But you died. And you’re not dead anymore."
And around and around again.
Despite her newfound interest in the well-being of others, Bedlam did find this circular discussion highly annoying. The situation made perfect sense to her, at least; Grandma Scarlett was Grandma Scarlett. States like "living" and "dead" had little meaning in the greater shape of the overall dream they existed within. Why was it so important if someone had lungs and brainmeat and so on when everything was both imaginary and fantastically real at the same time?
That was Bedlam’s preferred state of existence, really: hanging between imaginary and real. It gave her unique perspective on things such as Scarlett’s quantum reality.
For instance, Bedlam was there, physically there in her City… unlike Echo who could only walk and touch others in spaces where the dream was thin. Echo remained distant from anything resembling reality, floating free. Floating away from it all.
(Imagine how easy this business with the false Gregory Yates would be if Echo could erase his existence without needing to lure him into dreamtouched spaces! Unfortunately, forcibly contesting someone’s living will while they stood on ground made solid by consensus was beyond the grasp of her untethered nature. Even those ugly musicians she purged for Indigo’s sake had to be taken out to the Undefined Spaces first. What a shame, what a shame.)
Then there was Lucid, who was once simply a hazy and vague thing floating within the hope of humanity… until she completely grounded herself into realistic human form. What a shame, what a shame! It took Penelope Yates twelve long years to figure out even the slightest bit of her potential, so wrapped up in preconceived notions of human possibility. Bedlam may exist in a manner physically similar to Lucid’s new existence, but she remained untethered enough to ride the waves of chaos that Lucid only pretended to understand.
Real, and unreal. The best of both worlds. All Bedlam wanted was for her friends to be able to enjoy the same free existence she did. But as much as Bedlam loved Memorial Stadium—this wonderland, this place stuck halfway between the fully realized dreamscape of the City and the raw potentiality of the "Metadream"— the children were having difficulty coming to grips with it.
"You changed the house!" one exclaimed, realizing for the first time that they’d added several new rooms to it.
"Well, yes. The house can be whatever we want it to be," Scarlett reasoned.
"That’s weird. You can’t just change a house by thinking about it, you need wood and nails and guys who put nails in wood. And why is there a forest inside a sports stadium? Trees can’t grow here, it’s not astronomy turf or something."
The difficult part, Bedlam was finding, was in not losing her patience with such limited mindsets. The kids wouldn’t, and thus couldn’t, make the leap in understanding that came so naturally to her. Like so many in the City, they assumed there was a purely objective reality that everybody could agree on… and so, reality became a collectively agreed upon thing, rather than the wild and untamed dream it could be. Very disappointing.
…which is why, in years past, Bedlam had tried to unleash the City’s true potential by turning everybody into "Picassos." What a silly word for a wonderful state of being! If only they could be made to embrace the chaos, to ride it like the wind, they’d find such happiness…
But, no. Forcing that perspective upon someone didn’t work, hadn’t worked. In the end, they always chose Lucid.
It was enough to make Bedlam want to sculpt an angry cactus entirely out of pinpricks and solid frustration, off in an ignored corner of the enchanted forest.
// they won’t see // can’t see // there’s so much MORE to // there could be //
even Lucid feels that // it’s such a complete // there has to be
// makes me want to
// the eyes closing left and right and // and // the // and the // it’s just so—
"Sister, calm. Calm, please," Echo insisted. "I agree with you. They are… limited creatures, in need of guidance. But we can’t use a firm hand, as we once did…"
// what, then? // how // how can we // —how does Lucid do it? Bedlam asked. // everybody likes Lucid // why not us // how can we reach // them?
Echo floated in thought. (No need for a mirror, not here. One of the many advantages of the Memorial Stadium Exclusionary Zone.) She tapped a finger on her chin, bringing up a notion she’d been toying with for some time.
"Lucid limited her form down to their level when she breathed life into the mortal body of Penelope Yates," she recalled. "There had to be a purpose to that. We both mocked her for it, said it was a strangely self-crippling choice, but… Penelope has reached people we could not. She was born with their preconceptions, but gradually she’s come to accept her City. …I’m not saying that we should transform ourselves as she has, but perhaps she’s the proof that they CAN open their eyes. Penelope is the example."
…still. // still still still // I’d thought // thought the children, if anyone // if anyone could, they could. // young // inexperienced // unconvinced // not so deeply entrenched in what IS…
"Give them time, sister. They’ve had a difficult road; they’re orphans, adrift and unwanted. It’s no surprise they cling to stability. They may surprise you yet."
Bedlam didn’t have to wait long.
After getting bored with her little angry sculptures, she decided to flit from tree-shadow to tree-shadow back towards Grandma’s House. Afternoon hours were approaching; the kids would’ve settled in by now to this strange new place. Perhaps by observing them more, she could understand these limited mortal shapes a bit better. Understand why they would rather sip juice boxes and eat crackers to keep the idea of a fleshy metabolic system churning away, rather than become a cloud of limitless potential…
A playground had been created, very basic swing sets and jungle gyms, so the littlest ones could keep active. All being supervised by their minders; Indigo, Jeb, and the idea of Grandma Scarlett. Some of the older kids sat around talking, which Bedlam considered eavesdropping on… until she spotted someone playing with chalk.
That wouldn’t be odd, in and of itself. The impromptu playground had been crafted with a paved section, and a few hopscotch boards had already been set up. But the artist in question had started sketching out pictures of animals and cars and things in colorful chalk lines upon that concrete surface… and then naturally flowed right off it, drawing on the ground. The grass, the dirt, the trees. Things chalk shouldn’t stick to.
Curious, Bedlam flicked between shadows to study this creative soul—and accidentally popped into existence right in front of her, surprised by the artist’s identity.
// Shauna? //
"Aaaah! —oh, Bedlam, it’s you! You scared me," the girl replied, hands dusty with chalk.
// uh // sorry. // didn’t meant to // if I meant to // you’d be so very // —uh. // ‘cha drawin’?
"Just… stuff," Shauna said, fetching her dropped chalk. "I got bored and started drawing stuff. Um. You don’t mind, right?"
// but you’re // you’re not drawing on the concrete anymore.
"Oh, right. Well, I kinda ran off the edge of it by accident and… the line just kept going!" Shauna exclaimed, the shock of Bedlam’s appearance wearing off enough to share this discovery. "Isn’t that weird? I can draw on anything. I know this place is, like, magical or something, but… neat! It’s neat, right?"
Bedlam tried very hard not to emit a few extra eyes to study the girl with.
// anything, you say …?
"I think so."
// …how about the air?
"What?" the girl asked, confused. "You mean, like… just… drawing in the air?"
// sure // why not // why couldn’t you // give it a try? // if you want to // you can draw on anything // right…?
The pink chalk in her hand trembled a little, before the child gripped it firmly. Focusing on a spot just in front of her, considering it for a few moments, before…
…making a broad stroke with her arm, haphazardly. And then another. And then, with mad glee, another, and another…
She switched colors partway through, for the detail work. Rubbed out a few lines with her fingertip, to redraw them once she had a good feel for how it worked. It worked exactly as she thought it would, now that she was thinking about it.
By the time Shauna had finished her masterpiece… a small crowd of kids had gathered, staring in wonder.
A butterfly. Pinks and yellows, with orange winding in and around the lines. A butterfly hanging in mid-air, as easily as one might sketch it out on paper. She’d even figured out the concept of spatial design as she went, giving the wings a bit of an angle, rather than being a simple two-dimensional representation.
Only after she completed it did she notice the gathering group.
"Uh… it’s a butterfly," she explained to them, in case that wasn’t clear.
The response was just as cluttered and overlapping as Bedlam’s normal speech:
"How’d you DO that?"
"It must be magic chalk!"
"It’s gotta be done with mirrors!"
"That’s weird. You’re weird."
"Are you a wizard?"
"…can I try?"
To this last question… Shauna offered her chalk, to the smallest hand in the bunch.
For the next few hours, the playground equipment went unused. By the time the kids had to go in for dinner, protesting all the way, the enchanted glade had been filled with all manner of creatures great and small, imaginary and real. All made in colorful dust, hanging in mid-air.
As happy voices echoed within the house… two nebulous figures remained outside, amidst the chalk sculpture garden.
Crayons and chalk and plastic watercolor paint trays and colored pencils… all left behind, with the children’s departures. Bedlam scooped a few waxy sticks up to swirl a rainbow of colors around herself, pleased with the results. So many colors, all around her shadow-black form. Just like Dorothy and the door…
Bedlam’s smiles were wider than her head. She’d been trying to keep herself to a single smile, but today she couldn’t limit herself to only one. And Echo didn’t rebuke her for it; she’d earned it.
"Most impressive," Echo had to admit.
// Lucid was right // they can // they can do it, Bedlam said. // and I helped! // I helped!
"Yes, you did. You gave them the push they needed to fly, at last. Although… I’m curious. Why didn’t you draw anything, yourself?"
Bedlam’s smiles froze. And faded.
// … because // because // I // I make monsters, she admitted. // didn’t want to scare them // no // and I didn’t // I didn’t trust that // I wouldn’t // by accident // without realizing. // …too monstrous. // can’t show myself // true self.
"Mmm. A pity. But, it’s a starting place. Where we go from here, I know not… but I am curious to find out."
It started small, after that. The bedrooms changing overnight, reshaped by the imaginations of the children. New colors, new shapes, new toys. One of them found a stuffed bear he was particularly fond of, one which had to be shipped away during the peak of Scarlett’s fight against the forces of Bedlam. It came back to him, and why not? This was his room. It could be whatever he wanted it to be…
The process wasn’t entirely smooth. A nightmare about men with guns chasing him around caused one of the rooms to shift to a darker tone; Indigo had to calm the child before anyone could restore his room. While the charged atmosphere of Memorial Stadium was generally positive, a strong enough terror impulse could push back against the hopeful wish that made the zone a reality.
That’s why despite this newfound interest in remaking the world around them, despite her joy at its emergence… Bedlam largely stayed out of things. Sat on the fringes and watched, smiling, without contributing anything of her own making.
For a change… she didn’t want to scare anyone, not even by accident. A chain reaction of horror likely wouldn’t destroy the entire zone, but why risk it? Better to avoid trouble rather than ruin everything they’d been trying to become…
Holding form had become harder, as a result. It was like sitting around with tensed muscles, all day, all night. Bedlam tried to stay involved, wanted to watch the emergence of the children’s dream senses, but… she had to retire now and then, to relax her form. To be herself, safely out of view of anyone…
Shauna found Bedlam during one of these rests, later that week.
"Why’re you up in a tree?" she asked.
// I’m not. // I’m a shadow. // you see // nothing.
"Don’t be silly, I can see you up there," Shauna protested. "Normal shadows aren’t THAT dark, not real ones. Come on down already. You’re missing the puppet show Miss Indigo and Jeb made. The puppets don’t have any strings! It’s so cool!"
Ink flowed down the tree… Bedlam too distracted to realize how inhuman her shape was becoming. She greeted Shauna with a little wave of a hand or two, anyway.
// shouldn’t be here // dangerous // I’m scary. // being scared is bad.
"I already said I’m not scared of you, duh."
// that’s because // it’s because // I’m trying not to be scary. // I could be VERY scary. // just… being me. // being weird // strange // creepy—
"Like how you have three eyes right now, y’mean?"
Three snapped to two.
// you didn’t see that.
// did not!
"Did too, did too," Shauna exclaimed, stamping her foot in the dirt. "So you’re kinda monster-y. What’s so bad about that? The monsters are cool! Like ‘Where The Wild Things Are.’ Or like dragons! Dragons are cool. Can you breathe fire?"
// I… don’t like fire. // or explosions. // …I can dodge bullets, though!
"See? Like I said, you’re cool. So… lemme see. I wanna see what you really look like."
Pensive, Bedlam’s form fluttered. If she had a lip to bite, she’d bite it; if she had lungs, she’d sigh. As is there were no gestures that could express her worry, so… she chose not to worry. And to relax her shape a bit. And a bit more.
In short order, she was a multiplicious, whirling cloud of shadow in the vague shape of a girl. The same shape she’d adopted since splitting off from her sister-selves, a century ago. Kept her distance from Shauna, all the same, for her new friend’s safety.
"…okay, wow. That IS weird," Shauna admitted; but was quick to add, "But pretty cool. Still pretty cool. It’s like… like those weird pictures with the dots and squiggly lines you stare at and stare at and then there’s a sailboat…"
// …I could make you a // make a sailboat. // a river. // row row row your boat // if you’d // you’d like // if you’d be okay with // m // m-me…
"Relax! I still like you," the child spoke… offering a smile to the uncertain and formless girl. "I understand why kids might be scared, at first. But you’re no monster. You’re just… different. …hey. You should go show the others. I’ll help you, I’ll explain that it’s okay, that you’re just wobbly and stuff! There’s new guests at Grandma’s House, too; you should meet them!"
// …new guests? Bedlam asked. // I know that // I remember // Echo was looking for // for other refugees, but // guess I haven’t been paying attention // wandering // hiding // so… // who are they?
"There’s a baby! And a guy. And this nice lady with green hair. And—"
// green hair?!
"Yeah, her name is Kelsey. You know her?"
Shadow whisked along the ground at the speed of darkness, leaving a puzzled ten-year-old in its wake.
Over and down and around, between trees and through the concrete underlayer of the stadium and up into the air and through a doorjamb and into Grandma’s House and—
—and freezing, melded with a dark corner. Because there was shouting. Bad shouting.
Kelsey Trouble Jones-Smith, yes. And her sadly ordinary and boring husband, and their amazingly cool daughter. But others were here, as well… an older woman, notably. Arguing loudly with Miss Indigo.
"I thought you were dead!" the woman accused. "You left with that Jonny character, off to become a rock star. You never called, you never wrote. And then I hear you died in the stadium incident, and… and here you are now, with a nice new name, and—"
"I had to get away, okay, Mom? Away from him. The man you let into our house!"
"And that Jonny character, was he really a step up from your father? I knew it, I knew it the moment I saw him that he was no good…"
…again, with not understanding this whole life/death/identity thing. Clearly Person A was upset that Person C was no longer in the same state of Person B, whom Person C used to be. Bedlam watched from the rafters, curious…
Until a voice whispered in her ear.
"It’s not nice to eavesdrop," Echo spoke.
// oh hush // you peek all the time // all your mirrors, Bedlam muttered back, inaudible to anyone with a coherent body mass. // what’s going on?
"Miss Indigo’s mother is here. She’s also Dave’s mother. It’s all very confusing."
// huh. // fun! // makes our little // sisterhood // family look like // like // the Brady Bunch in comparison.
"The what? —let us leave them deal with this on their own. Come, let’s talk. There is… news. Unpleasant news."
// fine fine fine. // party pooper.
One light and one anti-light floated through the roof, up into the air over the house. They hung near the chimney, re-manifesting in the light smell of roasting chestnuts from the fire below. Bedlam didn’t bother assuming a proper human shape; partly because she was with her sister, partly because… well, that wasn’t needed anymore, perhaps.
"More refugees are coming," Echo explained. "I passed word through the Echo Chamber. Anyone who is sought by the Citadel is welcome; better here than sent to that desolate hell. This is our City, and they are our people."
// good // more the merrier // so what’s wrong? // unpleasant news?
"I felt soldiers in the outer shell of the stadium. They know there are people living in here, now. They’ve kept out because they lack the Department of Safety’s special protections, those helmets, but now… they’re willing to risk intrusion anyway. We are no longer hidden."
// okay. // kill them.
// you’re able to do that here // in this half-place // the zone // erase them // unmake them
they are within your reach // kill them // why not?
"…I’m not sure I should."
// why? // they are our enemy // foul things // to be purged // that’s what you do // you erase what should not be // yes?
"They are not of our City. But… they are also slaves underneath harsh whips, Bedlam. Conscripts of tyrants. Many of them do not deserve to be… removed. We need to defend this place, and we will obliterate them if we must, but… hmm. This is difficult to explain, as concepts such as life and death and the importance of guarding one over the other are a bit new to us, aren’t they?"
// …yeah // kinda, Bedlam admitted, with a shrug of a few shoulders. // soooo // so // take a cue from me // do things my way: // improvise! // deal with the insanity when it arrives // burn the bridge when you come to it // worry about it then. // maybe they won’t come back?
"Maybe. Hopefully. But I suspect that much like the asp of old, we’re going to need to defend this garden against those who would spoil it."
// …pretty sure that’s not // not at all // what the asp was doing.
"Yes, well, the devil was also an angel. As we will have to be as well."
Hard to say if the family tensions really calmed, after that initial outburst. The Smith-Jones-Jørgensen-Indigo clan was a weird one, most certainly… one which wouldn’t have reunited like this if not for the Citadel. So, one point in favor, several million against.
Given Bedlam’s connection to the family… specifically, being besties with one of them and having threatened the other with absolute madness in a Department of Safety holding cell a few years back… she felt like she should involve herself in that particular mess. Not that she really wanted to, given how new she was at this entire idea of socializing. But Echo didn’t give her much choice, did she?
"I need to defocus myself, and keep watch over the sanctuary," Echo stated. "The Citadel could invade from any angle. I’m going to need my senses stretched wide across the entire stadium, to intercept them on arrival. I’m afraid I won’t be able to shepherd the refugees. That’ll be your task."
// I’m not // I’m not a people person…
"You’re doing fine with the children. Shauna is your in-road to that circle, yes?"
// yes but // but // adults are showing up // other refugees. // we’re getting popular, Bedlam pointed out. // adults with // long // huge // memories. // of Picasso Friday. // …of my attempt to befriend them all. // —can’t I patrol while you deal with them? // they don’t know // aren’t aware of // your role in trying to kill them all. // even if they don’t know who I am // I look cubist // and // and—
"Bedlam. You can only be in one place at once. That’s what you are; that’s not what I am. I’m the only one who can guard the entire location. It has to be this way."
// Scarlett // Indigo // can’t they instead // can’t they…?
"You are also the only one who can open paths through the Sideways for our people to escape through. You have to bring them here. Come come, now. It’ll be good for you, learning to interact with them on their level."
And so, Bedlam was now a social butterfly monster.
She chose to start her education in the ways of humanity by talking with her bestie. It was the easiest way; if she screwed up, Kelsey would be polite about it. Wouldn’t run away screaming, either.
After the dust settled from the old mother and daughter flare-up, a shadow crept up upon the younger mother and daughter.
// hi. // um. // hi.
Kelsey jerked a bit in surprise, which wasn’t a terrific start. But she knew no true fear when it came to Bedlam… and the infant in her arms simply cooed and waggled its arms in the general direction of the chaos goddess.
"Bedlam. Hi. Sorry about the shouting earlier. Not me shouting, the other people shouting, I mean…"
// it’s fine, it’s fine // fine // how are you // how is the weather // heard any good jokes // a rabbi, a priest, and a Buddhist monk walk into a bar // how about that local sports team // will they take the cup // will they score more shot goals than the enemy pointleague // are we sitting comfortably let’s begin?
// small // tiny // smalltalk // talking very small, Bedlam explained. // socializing.
"Oh. The weather’s… okay, I haven’t heard any good jokes, I only follow eSports and I’m sitting comfortably. …is that what you wanted to know?"
// … maybe? // I don’t know // new at this // at // at // people.
Kelsey shifted the squirming baby in her arms, to rebalance in the rocking chair provided by Grandma Scarlett.
"I’ve been talking to the kids. You’ve been making friends, and not… making friends, if you know what I mean. That’s good! Very good. Very good. …I’m confused as to WHY given I know how you like things to be, but I’m not complaining. It’s good. Very good not to be spreading cubism…"
// don’t need to. // they can SEE, Bedlam explained, opening ten green eyes for emphasis. // starting to, anyway // starting to see // what could be // instead of what is. // all I wanted. // all I needed. // …realizing that, now. // realizing what’s important // what makes me happy…
Mother’s smile matched that of her daughter. Little Riley gurgled and waggled hands at Bedlam, pleased… while manifesting a multicolored rattle of indescribable shape. Its rattle sounded like a penguin giggling.
// ooooo! Bedlam voweled, leaning in close to see. The infant didn’t withdraw from the shadow beast, a point in her favor. // she can // she can twist // warp the dream // remake it in her image…?
"Yeah. She can. …it’s a bit worrying, honestly," Kelsey admitted, in the quiet of the night. "She keeps phasing through her crib, too. Hasn’t gotten hurt yet, thankfully, but… looks like she inherited a streak of cubism from me. A bit. But… how would people react, if they knew? Hollister had to find a very understanding pediatrician for her. What about when she goes to school? What will the Department of Safety do when they find out…?"
Antilight fingers stopped tickling gently under the baby’s chin, as she stood up to consider the problem.
The answer was immediately clear to her. Didn’t even need to bounce it around inside her scattershot excuse for a mind; everything within spoke in a single clear voice.
// she’s beautiful and perfect // nothing faulty // it’s the world at fault.
// the world needs to change // to suit her.
I need to make it ready to accept her...
"Bedlam, I’m not asking you to… to do anything rash…"
// what? // nononono // no // no need // nothing monstrous, Bedlam insisted. // what I mean is that
// this is // this is
// they can SEE. // see what could be // what little Riley could be // they are the next generation. // I can prepare the way // without forcing them all to accept it. // I don’t need to.
// no more Picasso Friday.
// there is only City Everyday.
Worry dampened somewhat, Kelsey resumed rocking gently in her chair.
"No more Picasso Friday, then? No more assaults on the Heart of the City…?"
// didn’t work. // wouldn’t work. // they need hope // not fear. // hope for what could be.
"You’re starting to sound like Penelope."
Red. Deep within, she felt a tiny sliver of red.
Nonsense. Bedlam was colorless by design. She occupied black, absorbing all color, letting none escape. The gravity of it was undeniable. And yet, the tiny thematic motif of Lucid had leaked in…?
With a probing hand, chaos reached inward. Fingers grasped and curled, pulling out…
A crayon. One of Shauna’s red crayons, waxy and worn down, which had accidentally floated into Bedlam’s mass earlier today.
// perhaps I am // sounding like Lucid, Bedlam wondered. // or perhaps // she sounds like me. // sounds more like me than I’ve ever let myself sound.
Refugees streamed into the stadium, once word got out on the resistance website that it represented safe haven. Echo monitored all comings and goings, existing everywhere and nowhere within the zone; each tiny flicker of fear and despair, her attuned emotions, stood out like a burning torch. Refugees, understandably, had plenty of both.
Many had to be ferried in through the Sideways, and Bedlam had taken a shine to that particular deed. It was a chance to show off, and the people she escorted always expressed gratitude after getting over their initial "EEEEE IT IS A PICASSO" reaction. Their testimonies of Bedlam’s efforts plus the growing confidence in her with the preteen-and-under set helped her integration efforts considerably…
Echo watched all of this, from afar. Watching the borders was her task, but… it was good to peek in occasionally, to make sure Bedlam was coming along well. To make sure this entire experiment was coming along well.
It was one night where Bedlam was busy attempting to have tea with Grandma Scarlett and Kelsey when the Citadel finally took action.
They came in force; two dozen men strong, heavily armed, ready for war. The lead leftenants wore hazmat protection helmets, the few prototypes that the Citadel had managed to procure before the hidden helmet stash was blown up by persons unknown. As most of the stadium entrances had been locked down by the Department of Safety prior to that organization being rendered defunct, they had to come in through the abandoned pizza restaurant attached to the side of the stadium where the D-o-S focused their research efforts.
The man in charge, the one wearing the least damaged helmet, pulled a map of the stadium from his back pocket. He tapped the visor a few times, to get the dodgy black censorship bars to scoot out of the way of his vision.
"Alpha team will head clockwise, Bravo heads counterclockwise," he ordered, while gesturing in the two directions with his free hand. "When you reach the north gate and south gate respectively, converge in the center. Any armed resistance, you open fire; do not target any clearly underage civilians, armed or otherwise. Use covering fire to herd them here, to the west gate pizza joint, where capture team Delta will wait to grab up any trying to escape. Remember, every able-bodied civvie you drop is one less we can put towards Citadel defense. Let’s not waste any valuable human resources here—"
"And are you considered a valuable human resource, sir?"
Guns pulled, as soldiers whirled around on the target.
Who was… a little girl in an old-timey dress. She curtsied, politely, before repeating her question.
"Are you valuable, then?" she asked. "What is your value to the Citadel? I am very curious as to how your strange city works…"
The Leftenant gestured for weapons to be lowered, vaguely annoyed at how easily spooked his men proved to be.
"Ease down, she’s just a kid," he grumbled.
"…she’s… she’s floating, sir…" one of his men mumbled, eyes fixed on the good inch or so of air between Echo’s toes and the floor.
Perhaps unable to hear the scared little whisper, the Leftenant tapped his helmet to bring up communications.
"Delta, got a little girl here. We’ll be bringing her out before insertion," he announced. "Right. —kid, it’s not safe in here."
"You are right. It is NOT safe in here," Echo confirmed. "That is the most accurate observation you could possibly have made about your situation…"
"Right. So, you’re coming with m…"
The word trailing off, as he reached to grab the child… and the child reappeared, standing on the ceiling instead of the floor. Gravity worked however she wanted it to, after all.
"You do not belong here," Echo stated. "I suggest you leave before—"
"P-PICASSO!" a Private shrieked.
Panic fire tore up the cheap foam ceiling tiles.
Any bullets which would’ve struck Echo simply… ceased to exist. Not that Echo had much to fear from gunfire, given she wasn’t one for physical presences in general, but it was a matter of principle. The rest shredded a good chunk of the restaurant roofing, which would be a problem if they ever decided to have a birthday pizza party for one of the children. What a shame.
On the plus side, they knew enough about this City to know what to fear from it. (But… Picasso, really? She was hardly as nonsensical as one of those lost souls.) On the negative side, they didn’t know to specifically fear Echo. She’d have to do something about that.
The easiest thing to do about that would be to erase them all. They’d walked into her half-dreamspace; in this place of power she could contest their living will, force them into nothingness. Meaningless echoes, all of them. Not really living people, not a living place, everything simply a dream. Whisk it away to the void. She could do that. She could.
But… that flickering flame of fear. She felt it, within them all. Even within the confident leader in the silly hat. These were desperate men, some driven to desperation by their foul nightmare of a world, some driven to desperation by other desperate men filled with hate. None of them had to end up in this position. They were sinners all, murderers and tyrants, but… but…
She chose instead to wipe their weaponry from existence. It felt like a reasonable compromise.
The bullets stopped when the men realized their fingers were pulling nonexistent triggers.
"…as I was saying… you do not belong here," Echo repeated. "This sanctuary is not for your kind. I will not allow guns in paradise. If you wish to charge in with fists swinging, perhaps I’ll remove your fists as well. Perhaps I’ll remove your feet, leaving only smooth stumps where your ankles are, if you insist on marching rank and file into my home. There are so many… INTERESTING variations I could explore, to disarm you all one piece at a time…"
Appearing now three inches away from the black-helmeted Leftenant. His visor went crazy, trying to figure out how to block out this impossible thing… so she did away with that, as well. To pierce his eyes with her own burning blue gaze.
"Go home, little tin soldier," she ordered. "Go. Home."
Peaceful and quiet once more, in that restaurant. Screaming in the distance, rapidly vanishing. A lovely sound.
Two more armed assaults were made upon her sanctuary. The first one came packing flamethrowers and grenades; clearly someone had told them about the Department of Safety’s typical anti-Picasso tactics. Not that it did any good against Echo. The second assault unit tried to enter by helicopter; the moment it entered Echo’s space, the helicopter went away. The men inside did not have a pleasant evening, as she methodically stripped them of all their toys and uniforms, sending them running into the night.
For a time after that, things were quiet. At least, quiet within the stadium itself.
The children weren’t made aware of the attempts to retrieve them. They were too busy having the time of their lives, exploring the possibilities of the ultimate playground. And now… Bedlam had decided to participate directly.
Her gift to them was something she created overnight, while they slept in their beds.
// TREE! // HOUSE! // tree-house // treehouse, Bedlam unveiled, pulling away a black sackcloth from the structure.. // treehouse // for you // for fun. // enjoy!
To her credit, it wasn’t a midnight black pillar of madness and horror. Far from it; she’d used Shauna’s crayon box as inspiration, spraying it with no less and no more than sixty-four different Crayola-approved hues. The resulting psychedelic spray of color was actually quite appealing, moreso if you happened to be high on cupcakes and pixie sticks, as the children were that morning.
But… the problem remained. It was a tree house.
"It’s a house in a tree," Shauna commented.
// tree // house, Bedlam agreed.
"No no, I mean… you put… a house in a tree," she tried to explain. "It’s a house that’s stuck up in a tree. …is the tree growing THROUGH it? Um. So, how do we get in?"
// I dunno. // fly?
"We can’t fly, Bedlam."
// why can’t you?
So, they flew.
Owing to Bedlam’s usual design philosophy, the interior greatly resembled the Sideways. Bigger on the inside than the outside, random piles of rooms connected to other random piles of rooms. But she’d scaled everything down; living rooms had kid-sized furniture and kid-height ceilings. Each one was sprayed with random colors from the crayon box, just like the outside. A proper playhouse, scaled and decorated for kids.
Of course, along with the distant echoes of rooms from Earth came full-on home appliances. So, Miss Indigo spent much of her (crouched over to avoid bumping her head) time running around trying to keep kids from playing with the stoves and knives and things. Still, it was a good start for someone who a little over a week ago disdained spending time among human children.
For hours they played… getting horribly lost within the four-dimensional space given for them to play in, true, but Bedlam was able to find each and every one of them when it was time to go back to Grandma’s House for dinner and bedtime. No harm done, and a good first attempt. She’d refine it overnight, to make it safer and even more fun. More toys. More games. More playspaces, for make-believe. Yes…
But one of the children, one she couldn’t find inside the treehouse. Because he wasn’t in it.
Bedlam found him sitting underneath the tree instead. Everybody had overlooked him in their rush to zoom inside and play.
// hi // ummmm // um // Billy! // Billy, right?
The twelve-year-old looked up at her, wiping away a tear. Boys didn’t cry, after all.
"Time to go back?" he asked.
// well yes but // but // butt, hee, funny // but why weren’t you playing with the others?
"Just a stupid treehouse. I’m not a little kid anymore," he grumbled. "And… I dunno. I don’t like it. Sorry."
// don’t like the colors? // I can find more colors // Shauna has a marker set I haven’t—
"No, it’s not that. Look, just forget I said anything—"
// the rooms // more rooms // less rooms // whatever would make you // happy // happy—
"—you can’t make me happy, okay?! I lost my Dad in the Sideways!" Billy blurted out. "To something like you, to a Picasso. He became a Picasso. I had to run away from my own Dad! Okay!? That’s why I’m an orphan. You happy now? Happy?!"
And off he went, running back to Grandma’s House. Again, boys didn’t cry, so he didn’t. Not when anyone could see, anyway.
Happy. Happy. Happy. // Happy…
The word swirled around her, sometimes in black letters, sometimes in white. Never in color. Not now, not with this strange mood she found herself in.
// happy happy happy, Bedlam repeated to herself, as she drifted off into the Sideways beneath the stadium. Searching, seeking. Answers, find those, finding the questions too. Finding the happiness…
She didn’t remember Billy. She didn’t remember a lot of things. But she remembered her friends… the friends she made over the years, ones who wandered into her domain, who got lost and afraid and lost themselves along the way. They became wonderful on their own, twisted up inside and warped into something more suited to their new homes. They became happy little Picassos. So happy, to be untethered from time and memory.
They were happy… right? They seemed happy to Bedlam. They seemed like a perfect thing, to Bedlam.
But… Kelsey, the only real meaty-type friend she’d had, she often said people didn’t want to go cubist. They were afraid. They didn’t have to be, there was nothing awful about cubism and terror and fear, once you were inside it. A warm, cozy blanket where terror punches through into something else. But, but. But. Happy. Happy…
Billy wasn’t happy. Could he be happy, if he joined his father down here? He could. Maybe. Or…
Yes, now Bedlam remembered. She remembered this one specifically. Funny, that his son was living in a former sports stadium; this one was lost in his past glories. Baseballs and footballs, trophies. Banners and pennants that sometimes took a triangular shape and sometimes did not. Gloves with balls bounding in and out of them. Playing catch…
Playing catch with his son.
That was there. That was the strongest memory, ahead of any faded glory of yesteryear. That’s what he lingered on, the moment he cycled himself across again and again, a tape loop ribbon across a magnetic head. The ball, back and forth. Father to son.
He wasn’t happy. He was lost in his unhappiness.
And so… Bedlam took that loop of tape, and snapped it in half. Respooled it, edited the footage, put things back in a cohesive order. Not an easy task for someone who wasn’t in any cohesive order herself, but she used Billy as a thread to tie it all together. That was Lucid’s way, wasn’t it? Hope, and love. Enough of the man existed through his beloved son to put the rest in order.
He still wasn’t fully aware of what was going on. Probably for the best. Start the playback heads rolling once he was on the surface… in the stadium, in front of Grandma’s House, with his son inside. Let them reunite, and have that put him back into the properly human shape he deserved. No more Picasso, not even a little.
In the end… Bedlam lost a friend. But Billy regained a father, and that was enough. That made her happy, much to her own surprise. Very happy indeed.
One day later, the Citadel demolished the Greasemonkey.
As much as they tried to keep news of the outside world away from delicate young ears, this news spread quickly. It was all over the Internet, all over the news. The kids who had cellphones knew immediately what happened… the Citadel wordlessly announced that these so-called "safe havens" were anything but. No amount of milk and cookies could soothe their worries, after seeing hundreds of free City folk perish in the collapse of that building.
One remained unaware of the news. She was too busy being aware of the Citadel’s next attempt to end this standoff.
The man was in the middle of keying in the bomb’s detonation sequence when it vanished from his hands. Fingers hovered uselessly in the dark, realizing all too clearly what was happening…
A pale specter cleared its nonexistent throat behind him.
"I almost didn’t notice you," Echo spoke. "Clever, posing as one of the refugees. I smelled your fear, but refugees are always afraid of something. And sneaking in explosives? Clever… and cruel. No more capture, then? Are we all to perish in flames, at the Citadel’s orders? …you will speak. You will speak or the worst imaginings going through your head will look like daydreams compared to the nightmare I will fill your shape with—"
"Go ahead. Do it," the bomber spoke, rising slowly, hands in the air. "I don’t care. Terminal stage lung cancer. I’m going out one way or another; Yates gave me a chance to help my Citadel on the way down."
"Send a dead man to make more dead men. Efficient…"
A jingling beep distracted her.
"My phone," the bomber clarified, hands still raised. "That’s the Commander, wanting an update."
"Answer him on speaker," Echo ordered, impassive.
A familiar voice from an unfamiliar man’s throat bounced around the dark of the stadium utility rooms.
"Sitrep," Yates ordered.
"Your bomb no longer exists, Gregory Yates," she replied.
"You know me?"
"I stay updated on my enemies. Once we realized you weren’t Bedlam, I had a few members of your advocacy organization brought in for questioning. The ‘Echo Chamber,’ yes? The suicide cult guys. They told me enough about you, in the end. You and your thought-responsive sanctuary."
Echo closed her eyes, taking one silent moment of regret for those she’d led into the Citadel’s arms.
"So, clearly you’re a hell of an adversary," Yates admitted. "And I’m running out of options for flushing you guys out of that weird place. Let’s talk compromise. What’s it going to take to get you to budge?"
"Nothing. There is nothing you can offer."
"Come on, Echo. You know you can’t win in the end. I thought you were all about not prolonging needless suffering? How exactly is continually putting kids in harm’s way jiving with your mission statement? Honestly, I don’t WANT to hurt any of you—"
"—a bomb, Yates? A BOMB in my—"
"—I don’t WANT to hurt any of you, but I also can’t allow that great big symbol of pointless resistance to go unanswered. It sets a bad example to the others, encourages them to fight against their own best interests. This is the bottom line: if you don’t want to get shot, just do what we tell you. If you don’t want to get hurt, don’t challenge us. Is it really that hard to understand?"
"Why not come down here yourself and ask us to surrender?" Echo dared. "Or are you afraid of getting hurt if you challenge me? No, better to send murderers into my midst than bloody your own hands. You’re a thug, Gregory Yates. A common street thug who hides behind his shiny war medals. At least your counterpart in my City grew beyond that primitive shape. You apparently never did."
"That weak version of me died for his cause. Think that proves I’m the stronger of the two, by default. Honestly, I’d rather you didn’t follow him into the grave… assuming you CAN die, whatever you are. But more importantly, I’d rather all those men, women and children you’re herding don’t follow you into the grave as well. Let me explain how things work in the—"
Echo almost didn’t react in time.
The rockets were screaming in so quickly that she didn’t notice them until they were a few feet away from the concrete exterior of the stadium. Five of them, fired from various angles. Each with a deadly explosive payload at the tip, ready to crush the sanctuary in on itself.
The zone, however, had been expanding recently. It encompassed half a city block beyond those concrete walls… and so did Echo’s senses, as a result. Once the missiles passed over the threshold of the City and the half-dream of the stadium, they were in her scope.
They vanished before impact. Inches before impact. Echo stood, arms outstretched… metaphorical sweat beading on her forehead, from the sudden blow to her presence. It took concentrated effort to wipe the weapons away before it was too late, all in the space of a single thought. A thought that hit her like a hammer blow…
Her feet didn’t scrape the ground. But she did sink through the floor, a good four inches, unable to maintain her usual gentle hovering.
"…okay, that IS impressive," Yates admitted, on the phone. "Here I thought my silly taunting would be enough to keep you distracted, unable to pull that trick. Guess not. Good one, kid."
"…you… you shouldn’t have done that. You…"
"Ohh, THAT sounds like it hurt you. Did it? What are your limits, Echo? I think I just pushed them."
She said not a word after that, cursing herself for letting on how weakened she’d become.
"I’m ending this standoff tonight. If rockets won’t do the job, I’ve got something that will. They’re custom built for this sort of task, in fact. You send the refugees out right now, maybe I’ll hold them back. Maybe. ‘bye for now."
And a final beep, as the phone disconnected.
Leaving the cancerous man holding the phone unsure of what to do next.
Fortunately for him, Echo knew exactly what to do.
With a sharp gesture, she cleaved the cancer out of his lungs. It didn’t exist anymore; after all, it wasn’t really a part of him, it didn’t belong there. Echo was the ultimate form of chemotherapy, in the end… the absolute precision of death’s scalpel.
He drew in a sharp breath… and found himself able to pull more air than ever before.
"You get to live with what you’ve become," Echo declared. "Stay here. Or go. I don’t care. But you live, knowing that you’re a mass murderer. I’m not going to be kind enough to grant you the void. NOW GET OUT OF MY SIGHT."
Night had long since fallen, but Grandma’s House was alive with worry and fear. Echo could feel it… even if her senses took a major blow repelling the Commander’s attack. She floated haphazardly towards the house, skewing left and right, unable to make her image move properly. If she could be wounded, they’d be oozing blood as she went… instead she leaked silvery light, the mirror interface of her life wobbling from the strain.
When she finally faded through a wall, coming to a rest on the floor in Grandma’s tea parlor, she couldn’t rise enough to avoid sinking into the floor. Echo came to a rest at an ungainly angle, pale and paler still.
This did not fill the familiar faces surrounding her with confidence.
"Th… they’re coming," Echo warned. "The Citadel. Yates is sending something our way, I don’t know what. I’m… I’m too weak to stop it… Bedlam, please. Please, help…"
The living shadow paused, any number of crayons and crayon drawings floating around her. She had been trying to learn this ‘coloring inside the lines’ thing Shauna talked about, as a way to focus herself despite her concerns.
Now, those concerns took center position… as she felt four towering pillars of absolute terror coming her way. North, south, east, west. The gates of the stadium…
Refugees had maybe a flicker of fear. These newcomers were fear incarnate. Beyond any level of terror a Picasso could feel, beyond anything sane or sensible. A fear which could tear down mountains…
And she knew what would happen. Saw it all play out in her scattershot mind, in perfect linear order.
// get them // get them into the Sideways, she ordered. // everyone. // the children. // the adults. // Echo. // all of you, hide and don’t come back out. // they’re here.
"Who? Who is coming?"
// the Citadel’s analog of the Lucid children.
// go. // GO. // I’ll hold them off.
A flurry of activity surrounded her, as the evacuation kicked into high gear. Kids throwing whatever they could into bags, being hustled into the Sideways entrance Bedlam had left in the basement. Jeb grabbing a full-length mirror for Echo to hide in, once they were outside the dreamtouched stadium. Grandma Scarlett, retrieving an oil lantern with the two dancing lights of tiny souls in it, resting comfortably despite the chaos around them…
Only when Grandma Scarlett had retreated safely back into the Metadream and Shauna had been physically pulled away from her, dragged off to the Sideways, did Bedlam open her eyes.
Floating crayons, and four nightmare engines closing in.
// Kansas // isn’t in Kansas anymore. // and neither am I.
Gathering the colors around her, Bedlam grasped a doorknob, twisting it open.
Builders, they were called. Ordinary people subjected to cruel and inhuman tortures, exposed to a psychotic entity known only as the Madman. Men and women who were hollowed out and filled with fear, then told to construct defenses for the Citadel in order to keep the bad people out. They knew only terror, sheer naked terror, and a perpetual need to guard themselves against the things that wanted them dead. All it took was a minor jolt of adrenalin to kick them into screaming overload.
Four handlers gave four Builders four injections of the strongest stimulant the Citadel had to offer. The Stadium’s natural dreamtouched gift took care of the rest.
Screams tore through the night air of the Stadium as Builder fear crashed head on into the potentiality of the zone.
At the same time… Grandma’s House, in the center of this soon-to-be war zone, exploded outward in a wild burst of color. Rising out of the growing kaleidoscope tube was a form… not of shadow and darkness, but of light and color. Black absorbed the entire visible spectrum of light, giving nothing in return. Until now.
Bedlam became a whirlwind of creative power and chaos, that night. And when the four bursts of terrible will crashed into her, she crashed right back into them.
Barbed wire and brick walls smashed their way out of the ground, closing in around her. She detonated them with brilliant bursts of light, curling and twisting and yanking them apart brick by brick. Gun embankments and anti-aircraft cannons spawned forth, pounding explosives into the air around her; stained glass windows formed left and right, intercepting the attacks, giving forth showers of brilliant Fourth-of-July firework sparks around her…
One by one, the grim horrors of war poured fourth from the minds of the Builders. One by one, they were taken apart by someone used to spreading her thoughts across a million points of view at once. She was physical, she was ethereal, she was fear and terror and confusion and delight and delirium and sweet, sweet madness incarnate. Bedlam was everywhere, was every whimsy and notion, standing directly in the path of the razor-sharp nightmares being poured skyward.
But that described a stalemate. Four on one, one countering four. There would be no victory that way.
So, Bedlam chose one of the four—at random, using the purest form of randomness possible, a quantum fluctuation in the second atom to the left—and studied the Builder’s fear.
After all… she was a master of fear. She knew its taste at the tip of her tongue, always. And she knew how to manipulate it.
// you fear the other Builders, she declared. // they are your true enemy.
Now, it was two on three. Panic took care of the rest; the fog of war was a powerful force indeed.
A cataclysm of fire baptized the stadium in napalm, as they turned on each other. Within seconds… all four were gone, having achieved mutually assured destruction.
Memorial Stadium was no more. A million tons of debris, concrete, rebar, and unexploded ordinance filled what was once a wonderland. Its potentiality had been burned out completely… this was a sad wound on the face her City, now. Never again to be dreamtouched, to be a place where anything could be. It simply… was.
…leaving only the scorched and battered form of Bedlam, swirling with a million colors, to fall to Earth soon after the one-minute war ended.
She used what little she had left to tear open a doorway, a storm cellar door, to at least allow her physical form to plunge into her beloved Sideways. A fitting place to rest.
Bedlam’s body tumbled to a halt in the center of a forgotten woodworking shop, where the refugees were hiding from the cataclysm happening one layer of reality above them.
Everybody gave the smoldering form a wide berth, unable to recognize what it was from all the wounds… and from all the colors, which Bedlam had been unwilling to embrace until now. She leaked like a melted wax stick upon the floor, closest analogue to blood she had.
// … // i did it, she whispered, offering a weak smile to the faces above. // you’re safe.
Echo pressed against the inner surface of her mirror, one hand flat against the glass as her mouth hung open in wordless terror. Bright blue eyes wide with fear… possibly for the first time, from the normally fearless (and expressionless) young girl…
As for the refugees… Shauna was the first to approach. She took Bedlam’s melting hand, trying to hold it up, trying to help Bedlam off the floor. "Do something!" the child called, to the adults. "Please! Please… do something for my friend! PLEASE!"
A hand, pressed to glass. Pressed harder than ever before. Echo strained against her prison of silver, the curse of nonexistence. A curse she’d confined herself to, hadn’t she? Deciding to remain unattached to this pale shadow of a world, this flimsy echo, meaningless and pointless. Not to become attached to anything within it, not ever, as that would be to give it justification to exist.
It had to cease to exist, that was the purpose of Echo, wasn’t it…? The absolute order of zero.
Never the absolute order of one. Ignore that side of the coin, that side of the glass…
With a scream, Echo pulled her hand away… making it into a fist. And punching forward, making that fist into a real thing.
She tumbled forward with the awkwardness of the blow, shattered glass falling around her as she fell through the useless mirror frame.
Didn’t have time to consider the implications of the blood that stained her dress. Her pretty dress. No, she had to hurry, had to scramble across the physical floor with her physical body, to press that bloodied hand against Bedlam’s rapidly decaying form. To grant it not the mercy of nothingness, but the mercy of wholeness. One instead of zero.
One word would do the job.
"EXIST," Echo demanded.
Wax ran backwards, wounds sealing, body reforming itself into a proper chaos-butterfly of riotous hue. Just as easy as cleaving away a cancer… restoring a state of wholeness, of pure self.
Bedlam’s many eyes opened, before settling on having two of them. For now.
They lost something, that night. More than just a safe haven. More than just a kindly grandmother, who could no longer be at their side.
They lost the hope that the Stadium represented… a new way of living. Already, the children found themselves instinctively trying to change the shoddy cots they’d found to sleep on into something nicer, and reality stubbornly refusing to alter itself at their whim. A hollow space had been left behind in them all, having glimpsed all that humanity could do. Only glimpsed.
But even as the humans despaired… the metaphors that watched over them wondered at their future.
They were different, now. Still Echo and Bedlam, for lack of a better conceptual word to hang on their framework. Still mercy and madness… but both of a different stripe.
Both more in tune than ever with their City. Both walking the Lucid path, much to their own surprise.
// she needs us, Bedlam realized. // she’ll call for us soon // to end this.
"I know. We’ll be ready," Echo agreed. "There’s no need for us to fight each other, not anymore. We’re three sides of the same coin. We always have been, haven’t we?"
// yeah. // but hey, we’re kids // young // inexperienced.
// kids make mistakes.
// we’ll simply have to grow up.
"Yes. For our City."
// for our City. // to wage war for the Citadel, if need be.
"You mean ON the Citadel, yes?"
Bedlam’s color-shifting eyes glowed with mischievous patterns.
// I mean what I mean. // you’ll see. // they’ll all see, once she’s ready to show them.