Buildings next to buildings, askew or aligned…
Strong walls, concrete and steel fortifications that circle all we hold dear...
A city of madness, and a city of terror. All they’ve ever known. Broken cities crafted by broken minds.
We live a life amidst the twisted yet familiar. We live a life amidst the grim spectre of war.
If we’re going to survive this, we must conquer the madness and terror in our own hearts. We must exist with hope in the face of despair, and refuse to give in to the worst within us.
We’re coming. We’re coming to do battle for what is right.
We’re coming to make our stand with lucid eyes that will see forever.
Are you ready?
Are you ready?
In the still of a hot Atlanta night, the temperature remained nice and chilly in the facility. Despite the creaky old air conditioning which had to have been installed during the Nixon administration at the latest, the atmosphere remained coolly still. No heated discussions between the few doctors left on this dead-end project, no trigger-happy and extremely bored security guards looking for minor infractions to lean on.
You wouldn’t even know that the facility represented one of the CDC’s oldest and most secret projects, from the atmosphere of workaday dullness about it all. Even the act of brain-scanning a patient who had been in a coma for a hundred years without aging a day had become a mundane act. Eight in the evening, like clockwork, and Patient 23 was being studied intensely.
The scanner showed vague images of the city being generated by the resonant frequency of her heartbeat and central nervous system. It couldn’t see fine details, unless it snagged on some focal point—nobody could agree if that was interference or just the janky experimental machinery they were working with—leaving them only with a vague idea of what was going on.
Things were getting exciting, though. A considerable layover of patterns between Patient 23 and Patient 12 had been occurring lately. Patient 12 had been poking around in other heads as well… resulting in the death of Patient 7. That made for some very interesting data points.
Doctor Jack Hayes liked very interesting data points. They were better than the endless cycle of repeating data points, the same ones he’d been collecting for years without fruit. A dead end job for a dead end man… or so he thought.
Curiously, one part of the trinity within Patient 23 (always there were three focal points, they’d found, from increasingly higher resolution scans) had gone missing. It took some time before Jack found it… inside the patterns from Patient 12.
One of the freaks of 23’s subconscious had jumped ship. The entity they knew as "Bedlam" was still kicking around in there, as was "Echo." The third they had no name for; it was elusive, apparently now to the point of crossing dreams. Very curious…
And then there was the not-so-small matter of Patient 31. The Sleepwalker, the one who woke up and escaped the facility long before Jack was born. He’d been parked in the middle of Patient 12’s "Citadel" for some time. A related phenomenon, perhaps…?
Jack made note of any fluctuations in his data scans that night. With any luck… this would be his ticket off this project.
A hundred years of mad science, with no progress to show for it. No idea how the flu vaccine had induced this coma of immortality. No way to reproduce the effects, thanks to that bastard Bates turning himself into Patient 31 with the last of the vaccine. No way to reproduce, replicate, mass-produce, weaponize, or any of the things various government branches had wanted to do with it over the years. By this point the CDC was just keeping tabs on the patients out of a slim hope that they’d do something new and interesting…
Patients interfering with each other, that was new and interesting. The increasing strength of 23’s signal, that was new and interesting. Perhaps with enough study, Jack could crack the code… and earn himself a promotion out of this hole and onto something which didn’t have him living like a hermit in the Ozarks.
As the girl who was Patient 23 slept, a portion of her mind existing five doors down the hall in the brain of a war veteran… Jack took notes. While not truly understanding the importance of anything, anything at all.
She didn’t understand why any of this was happening.
How many days had it been? How many days since they kicked down her door, gassed her, and dragged her off to this hell? No clue. Half the time they kept her blindfolded and cuffed… sitting in perfect isolation, blind and deaf and floating in nothingness. Only touching her own cheap prison jumpsuit convinced her that she was still awake and alive. The cruelty of it made her weep; the tears welling up inside the blindfold stung at her eyes every time.
Vivi Wei almost wished this torture had some purpose. If there was a reason behind what she’d been suffering, perhaps it would be easier to swallow.
Nobody spoke to her. Nobody knew sign language, and the few times she was able to lip read, it was incidental and disconnected speech between other people in the room. None of it made sense.
Some days, they’d just leave her in a cell between feedings. Sometimes they’d skip the feedings. Or maybe they didn’t, as time was difficult to track. Maybe it just FELT like she’d go a day without any of the disgusting soup they poured down her throat.
Some days… they’d do the strangest experiments. One day they locked her in a room with a dozen old radios of various makes and models. She couldn’t hear them, of course, but she couldn’t tell them that with the handcuffs on. Not that any of them seemed to know what her hands would be saying. For hours they’d make her listen to the radio, as if expecting something to happen. Nothing ever did.
Some days… they’d haul her out into the daylight. Those were good days, even if she was being pulled out in front of a booing, jeering crowd. A man at a podium would shout angrily, gesturing to her now and then, as if she’d committed some heinous crime. And then people would throw things at her.
If she was lucky, it was the age-old cartoon trope of tossing rotten produce. If she was unlucky, it was rocks and half bricks. Usually the security forces that accompanied her everywhere stepped in when things escalated; she was valuable, for some reason, and they wanted her alive. Not that it stopped them from letting her take a few blows. Bruising or cracking a rib. Things like that.
Again and again, strange experiments with radios, strange moments of becoming someone’s social pariah. No explanation. No reason. No purpose.
Eventually she decided to occupy her time by deriving answers, since none were being provided.
She’d picked up bits of the conversations between her guards, doctors, and other assorted keepers. For starters, this wasn’t the City of Angles… she’d been moved to something called "The Citadel." Penelope had sat Vivi down some time ago, in an effort to reveal all the little secrets she’d been keeping to those she trusted… including the secret that her home town was a dream inside Penelope’s head. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to guess that the Citadel was someone else’s dream. Someone else’s nightmare.
Next, she figured out her place in it all. She’d caught words like "perfect copy" and "resistance mouthpiece," which took a few iterations of guessing before she felt confident enough she was reading those words correctly. If the Citadel was militarized to this extent… people who wanted to fight back would emerge. Again, it wasn’t a stretch to guess.
In fact… it gave Vivi a tiny flicker of hope to know that some person who looked just like her was fighting against these monsters. And a tiny flicker of dread, knowing that odds were good she was a piece of public relations fodder and bait, being trucked out in public to decry the Resistance and lure it from hiding.
Once she realized this she started looking into the sea of shouting faces at those rallies… looking for the ones who weren’t shouting. Who were studying the formation of guards, looking for opportunities that never came. Vivi wanted to shout to them, to tell them to leave her and not get caught in the honeypot. As much as she craved rescue… she didn’t want it to come at that expense.
Which meant that even as the horrors went on, day after day, Vivi realized they would likely never end. Nor did she want anyone to die in her name.
Finally… last night, as she was cuffed down to sleep… one of the guards who had become increasingly physical while moving her from prison to prison decided to have a few lingering touches over her body before slamming the cell door behind him.
By that point, Vivi Wei wondered if she was ready to die. The answer was still no, but it was getting harder to say no after realizing the inescapable pit she’d fallen into.
She believed in life. A full life, well led, with friends and family and hope and faith and love. They were out there somewhere… her sister, her soulmate, her allies. And if they tried to rescue her, they’d die.
Once, she was trapped in a cell, pumped full of drugs, and forced to watch as her sister was tortured. That day she found something wild and dangerous and filled with fear inside her heart, and it broke free from bondage. Vivi had tried to tap into that again, but… she was too far removed from the event, from whoever that version of her represented. Couldn’t do it. All that was left was to endure, for however long she could…
That night, the guard hadn’t blindfolded her. Probably so she could get a good eyeful of him as he enjoyed the prisoner at his mercy. Which meant when someone threw open the door of her cell to finally rescue her… she could feel a full mix of joy and confusion.
At first, she assumed this was yet another strange radio-based experiment.
The woman who entered her cell had an ancient tape deck under one arm, the reels slowly turning within, old plastic PLAY button depressed and locked in place. Weirdly, she also wore what looked like a black motorcycle helmet, with strange black boxes crawling across the surface of the visor…
…and out in the hall, much to Vivi’s horror and her delight and her horror at that delight, she saw the guard who had fondled her. He wore a blissful smile, a pistol still between his lips, body slumped against the hallway wall.
Without turning off the boom box, the woman set it down near the door. She moved quickly to Vivi’s prison bed, undoing the cuffs and chains using a key handed over willingly by the grateful dead guard.
As a matter of explanation, the woman offered a slip of paper once Vivi’s hands were free. The message had been pre-written, in sharp and tight handwriting.
I’m Miranda Walker, formerly of the Department of Safety, and I’m getting you out of here. Transport is waiting to take us to the new TroubleSolvers. Stay close to me, and I suggest not looking at anything, because odds are I had to make a mess and I’ll be making more of one on the way out the door.
After the third blissful suicide they passed, Vivi decided not to open her eyes again. Despite reminding her far too much of the blindfold days, it beat the alternative.
A truck awaited them, on the other side of the horror. Now, Miranda finally turned off the audio tape reading "B.E.P. SAMPLE #7" before approaching their allies.
Before approaching Cass, in a waiting vehicle. A familiar face, at last.
She couldn’t sign, not with her hands at two-and-twenty, but Vivi could read her lips in the rear view mirror.
"We’re headed to a safehouse," the poet spoke. "They’ll never touch you again. Sorry we couldn’t save you earlier than this, but the TroubleSolvers have had a pretty shaky start."
TroubleSolvers… now, there was a word Vivi had almost forgotten about, in the long dark of recent days. Cass could read the surprise on her passenger’s face.
"Yeah, I know. Crazy, huh? Not exactly the same TroubleSolvers we had back home, but we’re still doing what we do best. And once we can figure out where she is… we’ll have Penelope on our side, as well."
Nothing in or around the sink. Nothing in her personal kit, the one she thought she’d tucked away securely in her footlocker. No sign at all.
"Anybody seen my toothbrush?" Penelope asked the other girls.
With an assortment of smirks, they pointed the way to the last stall in line. Her cute little pink toothbrush was in there, floating amidst the floaters.
It wasn’t surprising anymore. It wasn’t even disheartening anymore. This was simply how things were at the wonderful educational facility that Penelope Yates had come to know as Nazi Hogwarts.
Officially, it was the McNamara Command School for Patriotic Youth. Attending this school was the highest honor a teenager could aspire to; it meant that on your day of legal adulthood and mandatory enlistment, you weren’t headed directly to the frontlines to throw yourself onto enemy bayonets. Instead, you were being taught how to direct those who threw themselves onto enemy bayonets.
Attendance was limited to a select few; only those with either the natural skill and talent for command, or someone who vouched for their skill and talent with a large sum of money and/or favors from a prestigious family. To be here meant you were somebody important, one way or another… someone to be respected, and feared. Someone who was going places.
Penelope Yates, according to popular consensus of her peers, was not going places. She didn’t deserve to go places, not when they had either busted their asses to get in here or earned their spot by being born to the right bloodline. She wasn’t from the Citadel, they knew. She was an Angle. She didn’t know what it meant to be in Command School, to fight for her home, because this wasn’t her home. She didn’t belong.
At first, she’d hoped for some support from her fellow female classmates. Women were quite underrepresented; only one mostly-full dorm for them compared to five packed with the Y chromosome. Her sisters here in the women’s dorm, they’d support Penelope, right?
In a move which honestly shouldn’t have surprised her given her best friend’s experiences with cyberbullying… nope. The women were just as bad as the boys. (Not men. Silly boys, all.) They had their own positions to defend, and ostracizing the outsider was a terrific way for anyone to rally.
This meant she had no toothbrush, and would have to make do with a mouthwash which tasted like industrial floor cleaner for now. If anybody complained about her breath… well, it’d be almost funny, compared to the other complaints they had about her.
More than once, Penelope considered leaving.
She could leave anytime she wanted. She could break these walls down, reconfigure them, make this strange city dance to her tune. Penelope felt the pulse of the pavement, now… ever since the night she closed her first bleed, she’d been more accepting of her Lucid nature than ever before. Smash down the walls, build a fire escape, walk right out of this gated prison compound of higher education. Walk away from it all…
…right into a firing line, odds were. Or into a city she knew nothing about, lost and alone, directionless. Basically the same deal.
Out there, people were dying. People from her home were being thrown into a war, against their will. Every minute of inactivity by Penelope Yates was another minute of suffering. But… she had to be practical about this. What else could she be doing right now? She had a goal, not a plan. Without a plan, all she’d do is get herself killed.
Her father would be patient. He’d wait with infinite patience, coiled like a serpent, until he saw an opening for attack. Gregory Yates, the real Gregory Yates, moved with direct and efficient purpose. He didn’t lash out at his enemies, no matter how angry he was. No matter how angry Penelope was.
No. No point leaving, not when there was nowhere to go and an incredible risk involved in going there. Besides… toothbrush or not, this school could help her develop that master plan. The goal was to destroy "Commander" Yates, by making his dreams come true. That meant studying this Citadel and its war. Where better to do it than Nazi Hogwarts?
So she endured the toilet brush, she endured being stared at and glared at, the muttered utterances of "that Angle bitch" and more. Penelope returned those glares with glares of her own, got in their faces quietly, before moving on. Too proud to bark out at them, but too angry to let it go. Using the anger to focus her singular purpose.
Not that she liked being this new, angry person. She wasn’t used to being angry… but ever since her best friends and her father were shot to death by these bastards, well, anger was happening. Best get used to it.
Back to the women’s dorm, and into her cadet uniform. Not that she bothered keeping it spic and span, fully buttoned up, perfect and flawless. The first few days she did her best to fit in, before realizing she simply couldn’t. Now, she didn’t care enough to make the effort. If some upperclassman like Adam wanted to smack her with demerits, then she’d take them. Didn’t matter.
(That would be her. Penelope Smith. She had the option to enlist as Penelope Yates, but decided not to. That name was dead in this city; only when she set foot on her home asphalt would she be a Yates again.)
She took a few seconds to stand at attention, as a good First Year Cadet does when a Fourth Year Cadet barks your name. The 4Y in this case being Adam Wincott, lead distributor of demerits.
Adam. Perfect crew cut. Perfect grades. Perfect command of any situation, commanding respect. Well… commanding fear, mostly. Nobody wanted to cross the star of the school, the one destined for high placement. Bad for your future career to annoy the golden boy, when the golden boy might one day have the power to send you to your death.
"Button up your uniform, Angle," he ordered. "You’re a disgrace. And your breath could kill the Enemy at fifty paces. Don’t you have any self-respect?"
So, Penelope buttoned up. The rest didn’t deserve a reply. Lack of reply required a reply unto itself, in her superior’s view.
"You think the Commander granting you special placement in this program makes you special, Cadet?" Adam asked, invading her personal space by a good six inches. "It doesn’t. The Commander demands results, and from where I’m standing, you’re a sad disgrace to his good graces. Don’t you have a class to attend this period? What’re you doing loitering in the hall?"
"I was headed there before you stopped me," Penelope informed him.
"And you think arriving just in time for the bell is good enough? Should’ve gotten there way earlier than this. Consider that free advice from me to you," he continued. "You give this one hundred and ten percent or you wash out and go hit the frontlines. …or in your case, you open your legs and pop out someone who will do better than this. You ever want a volunteer for that… it’s a duty I’m quite used to."
Ahhh, right. That would be the insane sexual politic of the Citadel, in action.
It’s why Adam and boys like him tossed their weight around in a swagger: the burning need to perpetually replenish the population. The reason men outnumbered women five-to-one in Command School was because women had another path they could take on reaching the age of mandatory enlistment… mommyhood. Get one of these young studs to make you Teen Pregnant™ and you could avoid the frontlines. No marriage required or even desired, given the menfolk had poor life expectancy anyway.
Or, be like the girls in Penelope’s dorm and try to push your own career ahead of the death curve instead. The women’s dorm was unified and driven to succeed… and unified against Penelope, unfortunately. Avoiding the Adams of this world, retaining their independence in a world dominated by fighting men; that’s something an Angle never had to deal with. How could a hardened Citadel woman possibly be friends with a spoiled little Angle girl?
With no allies to back her, Penelope had to deal with "senpai" noticing her all alone. A senpai leering away at innocent-and-vulnerable little Penelope.
Innocent-and-vulnerable little Penelope was tempted to warp the building’s superstructure to make Adam his own comfy little windowless, doorless closet. She was an anime magical girl at this point, after all, and had the power to make even her ugliest dreams come true.
Or she could simply walk away, enduring his meaningless slings and arrows. His words were ultimately sound and fury, after all. Don’t provoke him; just go with it and get on with the long day ahead…
Two paths. Instead she chose something in the middle.
"I’ll arrive earlier next time, if only to avoid you," she said. "Thanks for your wise counsel."
And gone, before he could object. The door to her first period class wasn’t too far away; a quick dash and she could be inside and away from his harassment.
First period would be Military Tactics. Surprisingly little useful information to be found, there… she was hoping for a more in-depth study of the Enemy, the faceless thing that tormented this dream endlessly. Instead, she got drilled on weapon usage and other useless things. If this problem could be solved with a gun it’d be solved by now, so Penelope didn’t pay that class much mind.
Only one other person in class was worse at field-stripping rifles than Penelope. He took most of the heat from their instructor as a result, leaving her to quietly finish her work unnoticed.
Second period was supposed to be Enemy Intelligence, which also sounded useful… and was also quite useless. Each day they had a new propaganda filmstrip to show about the Enemy and how evil and bad and terrible they were. These movies started the same way… grainy footage of slaughter, handicam shots of an Enemy raid, carnage upon carnage. This would invariably be followed by a dramatized brave charge by hardy men in uniform who blew away waves of Enemy scum, to demonstrate how the Citadel would eventually win this war.
Penelope knew the point of these movies… terror. They were like the Department of Safety’s dire warnings issued during the Dougal years, to beat the drum of terror and spread fear through the room. In the end, humanity’s triumph would be held up, but the smiles of pride she saw around the room after each movie were thin and tight.
Only one other person in class wasn’t smiling, after these films. Penelope snuck glances in his direction during the films, once she realized the pattern… he was studying them. Studying the enemy movement intently, much as Penelope was. Perhaps he drew the same conclusions, that this malevolent force wasn’t something you could beat with an army…
Third period, the last one before the mercy of lunch break, would be history class. Here, Penelope took extensive notes, every time. The trick was to cut through the obvious grandstanding by her instructor, a woman with a booming voice and a deep wellspring of pride in the Citadel’s victories. Dig through and pull out the facts… then check them against previous lectures, to see where the discrepancies lie.
"Can anyone tell me what year the age of consent and legal adulthood was lowered to fourteen?" the teacher asked, a generic prompt to encourage class interaction.
One of the girls who threw Penelope’s toothbrush in a toilet launched her hand in the air immediately.
"1943, ma’am!" she declared.
"Indeed! And can anyone tell me the year of the first great frontline surge…?"
"Indeed. Now, the question is… what do these numbers have in common?" the teacher asked, walking between aisles of desks. "The answer is a difference of fourteen years. The key was the Wilson Bill, which launched alongside the lowering of legal age. The bill granted special citizenship rights to those who participated in the great population surge efforts of 1943. Fourteen years later… the first crop was ready to harvest, and the Enemy faced an army one full third stronger than they’d ever fought before!"
Chalk clacked against an old-school green board, as the teacher jotted down "1957." Students faithfully copied the year down in their notebooks, accordingly.
"This strategy is still in use today," she continued, as she scratched out more numbers. "The second great population surge of 1973… and the recruitment efforts in the City of Angles today."
Snickering, from the associated students. They knew an Angle was sitting in the room with them, after all.
"Now, don’t mock the strategy. It’s sound, proven time and time again," their instructor spoke, to settle her class. "Surges to crash head-on into the Enemy are effective. Our glorious commander believes that the latest surge, in addition to fresh blood from the City of Angles, may be enough to tilt the war in our favor!"
But the destroyer of toothbrushes had doubts.
"The Radio says we should be cautious," she pointed out. "Not to put our faith in false hopes, but strength of arms and resolute will."
The teacher nodded, in agreement. "The Radio is wise, indeed. This is a strategy, not a wish. It can fail and we should be prepared for that possibility. But… if it DOES work, imagine the opportunity! A turning point could allow new strategies—deployed by the brave young men and women of Command School—to push back the tide farther than ever before!"
Smiles, all around. Just like the end of one of those gory filmstrips, where the Enemy tore men apart on camera. Victory was the future, without a doubt…
Penelope wasn’t smiling. She was squinting at her own terrible handwriting. (She hadn’t picked up an honest-to-God pencil in years, not before coming to the Citadel.) 1957, 1973. Those years felt familiar… but a quick flip through her notes found no matches. She could swear they were important, that she’d heard them in one of these awful lectures before, but…
As the teacher returned to her chalk work, Penelope looked up from her page. Row after row of smug smiles, confident in their Citadel’s brilliant strategy.
Except for one. He wasn’t smiling. He was leafing through his notes, too. Not distracted, not bored… focused. Just as Penelope had been doing.
He was awful at taking apart rifles. He didn’t enjoy the cinematic bloodshed. And now, he was studying history with just as much intent as she was. It was like the old PBS shows her father sat her down in front of, at an early age: one of these things is not like the others…
The clatter of the lunch bell signaled an end to today’s history lesson. Just fine by Penelope… she had her own homework assignment, now. And it started with that boy.
Lunch was more than simply ramming calories down your throat for a full hour. It was a show of alliance between like-minded students. You sat with those whose goals and methods matched your own; the choice of who you sat with declared to others a mission statement, as well as a warning of who they’d have to go through to get at you.
Eating alone, however, wasn’t entirely uncommon. Obviously Penelope ate alone, but so did many other "lone wolf" type students. After all, if you ate on your own, it meant you didn’t need anyone else. In a city that valued strength, this could be a statement onto itself.
Or it simply meant you were unpopular, which was the case for the mysterious note-taking boy.
Given the girls and boys spent their off-hours at their dorms with little crossover (flirting and liaisons were for people who wanted babies, not people who wanted a command position) Penelope felt the best time to reach out to him would be lunch.
After getting her square meal, which fortunately did not have anyone’s spit in it today, she directly moved to the table where he was sitting and consulting his notebook.
"Hey," Penelope greeted, with a smile. "Is this seat taken?"
The boy took a moment before looking up at her.
"No…?" he tried. "No, it’s not. Did you need to take it somewhere?"
Assuming this meant Full Speed Ahead, she plopped herself down in that seat. The dingy metal lunch tray hit the table next, clattering slightly.
"I was hoping I could bend your ear a sec about history class," she started. "See, I was thinking about—"
"Whoa. Hold up, okay? I didn’t say you could eat here," the boy replied, backing away as far as he could without falling out of his chair. "I just said you could take the seat. Take it somewhere else. …I can’t be seen with you, okay? I get enough crap already."
"Everybody gets crap from somebody or another around here," she suggested. "What’s a little more? C’mon. It’s boring eating alone, isn’t it?"
"Boring and safe. I don’t know you and you don’t know me—"
"I’m Penelope Smith. The ‘Angle,’ yes, yes, it’s very funny. I’m an okay person, though, I swear."
With a sigh of surrender, the boy leaned himself back upright. Mostly.
"Quinn Qureshi," he introduced in turn. "Yes, it’s a funny name. I’m aware of how funny it is, thank you."
"Hey now, I wasn’t gonna make fun of your name…"
"And I wasn’t going to make fun of you being an Angle, but you felt you had to defend yourself preemptively," Quinn pointed out. "Not surprising. That’s what this place does to people; teaches you to be on guard for weak points. Defensiveness is a survival skill. …if you don’t mind, I’m going to pick up my tray and move to another table, so everybody sees me rejecting you. You do in fact seem to be an okay person, it’s honestly nothing personal, but I’m not opening any more weak points to the likes of Wincott."
"Adam? C’mon. He’s just a blowhard bully," Penelope dismissed. "He’s destined to be yet another shouty Leftenant, one day. I’m guessing you know already that another shouty Leftenant isn’t going to win this war. I’ve seen you analyzing every word in our classes…"
"Correct. But, at risk of generalizing… you’re an Angle. You don’t get how the Citadel operates yet; blowhard bullies are exactly what the Citadel wants, even if it doesn’t actually work. They selectively breed for blowhard bullies. That means if I enrage those guys, my life becomes hell, because they’re the ones who always get the power. Doesn’t matter if it’s right or wrong, that’s just how it IS. If you’re smart, you’ll learn how and when to roll over and submit to the shouty Leftenants."
"Sheesh. Cynical much…?"
"Cynical enough," Quinn corrected. "Now, I’m going to raise my voice so I can get some attention going and earn some points by telling you off. I’m genuinely sorry I have to do this, but—"
The loud scrape of his chair on the cheap tile floor cut through the typical lunchroom background radiation.
"Push off, Angle," he declared. Not loud enough to make it clear he wanted to be heard, but loud enough to clearly be heard.
And off he went, to the farthest unoccupied table. Leaving Penelope wondering what the heck just happened, a wave of snickering from her fellow students drifting in Quinn’s wake.
Days like these, Penelope certainly didn’t feel like a magical girl heroine. Pretty Soldier Sailor Angle-chan wouldn’t be this powerless and unpopular by day, right? Maybe she could adorably trip over things with an "Uwah~!" noise to garner sympathy…?
Or maybe she didn’t want sympathy. Not from these self-centered fools. Not from the intelligent ones who should know better but still bought into the system, like Quinn.
That was infuriating. She’d honestly been expecting that Quinn might be a friend… two outcasts pushing back against an unjust system. She’d known clever girls and brave boys all her life, willing to throw in on the right causes simply because they were the right causes. The TroubleSolvers had swirled around her, making her the focal point of a righteous stand for what must be done… but in this world, this Citadel, the clever and the brave weren’t interested. Not unless there was something in it for them.
Penelope Yates, the Lucid child, the focal point of so much chaos and hope and struggle. She wasn’t a hero here. Wasn’t the center of anything. Wasn’t anything at all, really…
Back in the women’s dorm, surrounded by attractive young go-getters who were on an upward journey through the Citadel’s ranks, Penelope quietly poked through some awful teen vampire romance novel. For lack of anything better to do with her time. Her wasted, wasted time in this wasteful place.
She should probably be researching those dates from history class. Maybe there was something there; couldn’t just be a random firing of neurons, she had remembered something related to 1957. But… honestly, she couldn’t focus. Saving the Citadel from itself was critically important, and she didn’t feel like putting one foot in front of another to do it. Not after today.
In the end, she drifted off to sleep with the open book on her chest, and a bitter taste in her mouth. At least in sleep, she could be something other than the stupid little Angle girl.
This was the Citadel, boiled down to its absolute essence: Fear.
Fear of the Enemy. Fear of the state. Fear of death. Fear of losing a loved one. Fear of everything falling apart, everything crashing down, at any moment.
The fear lapped like waves at the walls, empty-eyed figures with skeletal grins that sought nothing more than the most awful things imaginable. The Enemy… corruption incarnate, incapable of anything but the worst acts of inhumanity that humanity could dream of. At least Bedlam believed in her City, even as she tormented it. The Enemy was anathema, pure and simple…
The fear flowed across the airwaves through modulated frequencies, perpetually affirming the status quo of endless war. The Radio. Penelope knew the accent on that voice, even if anyone born here did not. It was British and paternal, always kind, always concerned, always severe. It spoke and people listened, taking the words to heart, letting it chill what little hope they had left…
And… at the heart of this city, deep within the central military hub known as the Bulwark, was… was…
…something. Something dark and twisted and wrong. Not malevolent, not at all, but lost so deep down the rabbit hole of fear that no light could escape its gravity. In a lot of ways, something worse than the Enemy could possibly be.
The Lucid child soared through the Metadream of the Citadel, studying these three loci of fear. Here, in dreams, it all made perfect sense to her. Sometimes she could carry the shape of it into the waking day… but once it got mixed in with social backbiting and educational propaganda, losing that shape was quite easy.
On the first day, Penelope had carved out a little bus stop and bench for herself, to act as a waystation during her slumbering journeys into the dream. But she didn’t need that crutch now, did she? Once she refused to stray beyond the single streetlight she’d provided for herself. Now… she soared, in and around and through the rigorously constructed representative building-metaphors of this Citadel.
She could feel it all, just as easily as she felt her own City. In fact… her own City wasn’t that far away, was it?
It came as a shock, when she realized how close the City of Angles was. It made sense, of course; if the bleed could join worlds, then concepts like "distance" or "discreet whole integers of self" were meaningless here. Possibly, very possibly, she could journey back home. Clumsily. Awkwardly. Could she damage both cities in the process? Maybe. So many unknowns, not worth the risk. No. Besides, the Citadel was her focus now…
Invisible eyes swept across the sea of the metadream. On one side of the interface, the Citadel. On the other, the City. On other sides… other dreams. So many sides to it all. Why couldn’t she see them before? Was she really so blind, unable to accept who and what she was? Was she losing her physical self in the process of becoming more in tune with her dream, as Echo had warned…?
Tonight, she delved deep into that sea. By waking light, she’d gotten absolutely nowhere. Alienated a potential ally, flailed around uselessly in data points, lost her toothbrush. Tonight, Penelope would damn well make some progress, even if it tore at her mind in the process. She would find something new, a new angle to consider, or else. Or else…
The sea of the metadream had many surfaces. She could come up for air anywhere she liked, if she was willing to risk that the air was poisonous. There had to be surfaces she couldn’t or wouldn’t see before. Like that one, for instance.
Pulsing, inviting. Interesting. Yes, upward, swimming upward, to see what she could see. Hear what she could hear…
There was a beep. Like a hearing test, the faintest of beeps, as a doctor checked to see at what decibel level you could detect the sound. Now, she could detect what was there all along, couldn’t she? That beeping, yes, that pulled at her, upward and upward…
Voices. Good, she could listen to voices, understand what they had to say.
A woman, speaking, trying to draw someone’s attention.
Doctor? Doctor. Look, look, she’s waking…!
Light from above. Faint beeping. If only she could focus on it, could bring herself around, she could—
—be pulled by the shoulder, dragged down and away from the lights and sounds.
Which made no sense, since she didn’t have a shoulder. This was her dream-self, a floating perspective, yes? But when she first started coming here, she kept her self-image with her. It had a shoulder. Someone was grounding her back into that self-image, and all the rules that governed it. Dragging her back from the surface of the water… and pushed firmly onto a bus stop bench.
It took an endless moment for Penelope to feel the weight of being herself again, as opposed to her ideal. To realize she wasn’t alone in this personal corner of the metadream.
He was… indistinct. Cloaked mostly in shadow, standing directly under her street light. A heavyset figure in a bulky coat, his scarf dangling behind him in unfelt winds. Round glasses reflected the light in contrast, two plain white circles that blocked the eyes. And his hand… the burn mark, the number 31…
"Shouldn’t be doing that, not at all," the older man spoke. "Quite dangerous, what you just did…"
"whhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh," Penelope spoke, trying to remember the physical act of speech.
"I did that, once. Thought I’d pulled my trinity together, unified it, and that would be enough," the man of 31 spoke. "When I regained full consciousness, my mental prison was utterly destroyed. Sleep is what maintains the resonance, you see. Your particular dream is home to so many; I doubt you’d want to see them suffer that fate…"
"whhhhhho are you?" she managed, at last.
Now, a woman’s voice. From somewhere over his shoulder, despite having no body attached to it, no lips to form the words.
She needs to find her own answers, the woman spoke. You could simply provide them for her, but not if you want her to truly understand. That is what you’d hoped for when you first visited her dream, yes?
"Yes, I know," the man replied. "It’s unfortunate—"
"Who’s that woman you’re talking to?" Penelope demanded.
"…you can hear her voice?" he replied. "You hear the voice of Redemption? Hmmmm. Interesting. Sensitive enough now to hear my own internal trinity. Yes, very interesting…"
You can’t give her the answers she seeks on a platter. It won’t help, not in the end; she has to know the shape of it herself. We should return before your absence is noticed.
"I suppose so," he agreed, to the non-corporeal entity that accompanied him. And turned to leave.
"Whoa, whoa! Wait!" Penelope insisted, awkwardly getting to her nonexistent feet as the man began to fade. "You’ve got answers? Please, please, I’m going nowhere on my own. I have to understand what’s happening if I’m going to fix this…!"
"Yes, you do," he agreed.
And gone. The inrush of dream to fill the nothingness he once occupied was sharp enough to blast Penelope Yates awake in her bed, breathing heavily with actual lungs in the actual night of the Citadel.
The very last thing Penelope wanted today was more enigmas to mull over, on top of the existing pile of enigmas. Who and what she was, how she fit into all of this, how the war could be won, what 1957 meant, who this strange man with the 31 on his hand was, everything, nothing, nothing made sense…
Nobody was here to help her sort through it all. No Grandma Scarlett, not even the idea of her. No friends. No father. Just… her.
Technically she wasn’t supposed to wander the campus grounds after lights-out, but no way could she get back to sleep after that run-in. Too alert, too awake. Instead, she walked the halls towards the dormitory nexus, the rotunda that joined all the dorms as one. No guards… nobody wanted to leave Command School, not after working so hard to get here. Plenty of locked doors and barbed wire walls on the outside, allegedly for their own safety, but no guards needed this deep into the facility. Penelope had the rotunda to herself.
Herself, and the large bronze statue of Commander Yates.
Try as she might, she couldn’t picture that man as her father. Not even for a tiny moment of comfort, to feel like he was with her. All she saw was… him. The murderer. The tyrant. The bully. Everything Penelope stood against, in one convenient package.
Honestly, she was tempted to destroy the statue. She could do it. She could do anything, once she set her mind to it.
She could hear the commotion in the men’s bathroom, for instance. Could identify one of the voices, and then, both of them.
It was two in the morning, why would anybody be out here? (Well, she was out here. So other strange activity was presumably a possibility.) Why would they be out here, specifically…?
Could’ve just gone to bed. The boy made it clear she wasn’t wanted, after all. He suggested she mind her own business, guard her weak spots, and get through this. It would be the smart play.
To hell with the smart play. She was in the mood for the aggro play. Especially if her interpretation of those voices rang true, which was proven on kicking the door open and seeing Adam Wincott holding scrawny little Quinn Qureshi off his feet and against a wall.
Despite the predicament, both boys were equally surprised to see five-foot-nothing little Penelope standing there, in silent fury.
Adam was the first to break that silence… by dumping the slightly bruised Quinn, letting him drop to the floor. The boy’s feet went out from under him, leaving him sitting there, after banging the back of his head against the tiled wall.
"You realize this is your fault, right?" Adam asked her, happy to engage this new target. "This sad little beta male had the gall to stick up for you, when I asked why he was talking to you at lunch. ‘She’s probably an okay person.’ That’s seriously what he said, isn’t that pathetic? Couldn’t even stand up for you properly. What a sad little white knight you’ve found, Angle girl. What a waste of a Command School enrollment this weak sissy turned out to—"
"Oh for God’s sakes, just… shut… UP," Penelope commanded… fingers tensing and untensing, standing rock still. "Just shut up. Tired of it. Tired of you and your entire deal. I’m never going to get through to you unless I speak on your level, am I? Weakness and strength, pushing people down, pulling yourself up… is that all you respect? Is that all you fear?"
"Oho! What, you wanna fight? Hey, I’ve got no problems kicking a girl’s ass. Here in the Citadel, we remain strong against all comers," the older boy stated, with pride. "You think you’re strong enough to stand up to what I’ve seen? You’re not strong. You’re nothing!"
"Wrong. I’m a goddamn magical girl," Penelope declared.
Like letting go of a muscle kept tense all week… she poured her anger into the room, and made it a part of her rage.
A series of metallic clacks sounded, one after another, as bathroom stalls unfolded themselves. Doors hinged off of doors, toilets and urinals crashing through tiled flooring. Foam ceiling tiles warped and twisted, segmenting and twisting like fractal units of a kaleidoscope. Within seconds, Adam found himself surrounded by heavy swinging metal doors and gates, stall after stall embedded within stall after stall…
It happened so fast he barely had time to register the way space became… strange. With an increasingly unsteady hand, he unlatched the door that sprang to life in front of him… to find himself in a stall with three more doors. Doors which led to other doors. Which led to walls, which led to sinks, which led to mirrors, mirrors reflecting mirrors, reflecting three of him, showing him the back of his own head…
The scream couldn’t be heard beyond this pocket of the Citadel carved by tools of pure loathing. Penelope had no intention of being interrupted during her object lesson.
"What’s wrong, Adam?" she spoke, through a mirrored reflection. "Isn’t this what you wanted? A good, strong soldier. Capable of pushing even you around. Feel my strength. Feel me tear your world to pieces and put them back together any way I like. I’m the alpha male, now. Not you, no, never you—"
His fist did a great job shattering the mirror, at the cost of harsh lacerations. Howling in pain, he staggered backwards through two sets of stall doors, clenching a bloodied fist. And still, the voice continued.
"You think I’m not hard enough for your Citadel? You haven’t seen my City. I’ve seen Picassos, lost souls thrashing about in absolute despair. I’ve seen smiling faces swallowing bullet after bullet, and happy to do so because they feel they’ve lost everything. I’m harder than you can possibly dream, Adam. That’s what you want me to be, right? Aren’t you proud? Aren’t you aren’t you // aren’t you so // proud—"
And he cracked. Sinking to his knees, wrapping hands around his head, desperately trying to shut it out.
"Stop! Stop stop stop, please, please God, make it stop! PLEASE…!"
But he wasn’t the only one doing that particular gesture of desperate submission.
Right next to the space where Penelope stood, Quinn as similarly trying to block out the horror. He’d been caught in the splash radius, after all.
Sound and fury. A blowhard, pushing weight around, achieving nothing.
The bathroom resumed its normal shape, immediately.
When Adam dared to look up… Penelope had unbuttoned her uniform again. So she could tear a strip off from the hem, and offer it as a bandage.
"Your Citadel doesn’t need that kind of strength," she spoke, quietly. "Stomping around and screaming and shooting won’t get anybody anywhere. If you want to command the people, don’t make them fear you more than the Enemy. Get them to respect you more than the Enemy. Take away the Enemy’s power, by becoming something greater. Then you’ll win. …do you understand?"
He didn’t understand. Entirely Penelope’s fault, carrying on like that, blasting his mind out the back of his head. So she quietly sent him off into the night, bandage on his hand, knowing nobody would ever believe his story anyway. Hopefully on reflection, he’d figure things out.
The speech wasn’t really for Adam, anyway. She waited until the words had time to settle before approaching the other boy.
Quinn didn’t run. He didn’t tremble, either. He stood, quietly and carefully, keeping his eyes on her. Caution was perfectly understandable in the situation… and the courage to stand his ground against the unknown and deal with it even-handedly was actually quite impressive.
"Who are you, exactly?" Quinn asked.
"I’m Penelope Yates," she introduced. "I’m the City of Angles."
The easiest explanation was to say she was like a Builder. That was something Quinn understood; extremely dangerous people who could assemble structure from nothing. Penelope could certainly do that, and she was also certainly extremely dangerous.
(Which honestly made her feel a bit ashamed, with the way she sandblasted her supposed enemy. It took seeing Adam’s fear reflected in Quinn’s eyes for her to realize how totally stupid she’d been.)
Whether he was terrified of her or open to the possibilities, either way, Quinn was willing to hear her out when she suggested a late-night library raid. The correct thing to do would be to report a rogue builder… but whether it was shock or fascination, the boy found himself along for this wild ride.
"This is insane," he felt the need to say, regardless.
"No no, trust me, it makes sense. See, there’s gotta be something weird about 1957," Penelope explained, as they broke into the locked library door. (Lockpicking being one of the many fine life skills taught to her by her father, a must for urban spelunking.) "That year sticks out in my mind for some reason… and I’m betting you feel the same, the way I saw you checking your notes. I don’t buy that all it takes to beat the enemy is a population surge; there’s got to be more going on. And if I’m going to win the war, I need to understand the war."
"First thing, I meant following you around was insane, not… whatever insanity you’re currently rambling on about. Second thing, you can’t win the war," Quinn stated.
"Because… you can’t. You’re just one person. —one very strange person, okay, but still one person. You’re not immune to bullets, right? —wouldn’t matter, it’s still a matter of numbers in the end, and singularly directed force of any magnitude against an overwhelmingly vast foe is useless."
"Huh. Very analytical."
"I’m having an extremely weird day. Pardon if I deal with it by over-thinking," Quinn explained. "It helps me relax."
"Look, I’m not saying I can do it all alone. Every time I’ve been up against the wall, I’ve needed friends and allies. Same deal here, but I think I’ve got a good chance of figuring out how to win it. I understand places like the Citadel and the City of Angles better than most. Better than that idiot Commander, anyway."
"He’s not an idiot. He’s kept the stalemate stable for over a decade now. No major takeovers of outlying districts or anything…"
"Aha! A stalemate," Penelope highlighted. "So you know as well as I do that it’s a stalemate."
"Everybody knows that. Nobody wants to admit it, but everybody knows that…"
He dampened his voice now, on instinct. This was the school library, after all. Whispering in the library was a must, particularly when a crazy psychokinetic mutant girl was illegally breaking into it after hours.
As proof of how much value the Citadel put in its knowledge base, no guards would be sweeping through here. A locked door was enough to call it secure, after all. Still, whispering felt appropriate, as the two approached row after row of study tables, microfiche readers, card catalogs… and in the distance, shelf after shelf of hardbound books.
With a mild note of shame, Penelope realized this was actually her first time setting foot in a library. (The one in the Sideways where the shelves were Möbius strips didn’t count.) She never saw the point of going to one, not when everything she could ever want was online… and given the City of Angles’ general attitude towards leaving their homes, the number of public libraries was dreadfully small.
It felt… good in here, honestly. The combined weight of a culture’s knowledge, pressed between pages, ready for access to those who knew the mild arcana involved in finding what you wanted to know. Far more open and inviting than anything else in this school, which was designed to close people off in their own little worlds of career advancement.
Penelope nodded in satisfaction, pleased that she was finally making some headway on her plans. And… then realized something.
"I have absolutely no idea how to find anything about 1957," she admitted aloud. "I don’t suppose you guys have Wikipedia? I see some computers over there, but they look kinda… janky."
"It’s a giant encyclopedia on the Internet."
"What’s the Internet?"
Despite being an all-powerful demiurge, Penelope immediately felt crushed by the reminder that she hadn’t checked in on her blog or any of her social networks in over a week.
"I have no idea what you’re talking about, but a good place to start would obviously be the card catalog," Quinn suggested. "Or just hit the shelves. I’ve got a good chunk of the Dewey Decimal system memorized, makes it easier when I’m prepping for an exam. …actually, no, forget all that, newspapers are what we need. The history books are too sanitized. Come on."
Penelope was pulled out of her brief pang of webless misery when the boy took her hand and pulled her along.
"Uh…" she started, momentarily puzzled by the sudden human contact. "Wait, uh… wouldn’t… wouldn’t the news be sanitized, too?"
"Oh, definitely," Quinn replied, glancing back to her as he poked his way past the darkened shelves. "But it rushes to press every day, so sometimes details slip through the cracks. If you’re used to the patterns you can read between the lines. Living in the Citadel, well… you get adept at reading the words which aren’t there… ah, here we go."
And the two came to a halt in front of a series of wide metal cabinets.
Curious, Penelope tugged open a drawer. Row after row of what looked like tiny slips of clear plastic greeted her.
"Where’s the newspapers? I mean, actual newspapers are made out of paper, right?" she asked. "I mean, I’ve only ever read news websites, but I know what a newsPAPER is…"
"Uh… it’s microfiche. No, let me guess, you’ve never seen microfiche before," Quinn accurately guessed. "Do you City folks all have jetpacks and space vitamin pills and laser guns, too? Grab every sheet tagged 1957 and let’s get to work. I’d like to be done with this craziness before sunup."
Two pairs of eyes were better at scanning over endless realms of black-on-white enlarged photocopy. Unfortunately, Penelope barely counted as two eyes.
It’s not like she was unobservant. She had a habit of sizing up every locale she set foot in, drummed into her at an early age by her father. Studying body language was also a must. But straight up reading, well… she didn’t do enough of that, really. It’s part of why she joined the journalism club, back home, to get a better feel for the written word. Analysis was different than writing, however, and Quinn clearly excelled at it.
"I’m seeing a lot of classified ads talking about mason jars," he spoke up randomly, cracking the silence.
"Hmm?" she replied, distracted from the article about weather patterns she’d been loosely reading.
"Month after month, very similar ads. I think it’s a kind of code," Quinn explained. He pulled the glass enclosure for the microfiche out, sliding in a fresher looking one, then scrolled through rapidly. "…yeah, I’m right. Mason jars, even in a paper from six months ago. Huh. Must be a Resistance code."
"What’s the Resistance like, anyway? You being the resident Citadel expert, and all," Penelope asked. "I haven’t heard anything about them in class, not even anti-Resistance propaganda…"
The boy pushed away from his fiche reader, for now. Considered the question, before dropping an answer.
"Unhelpful," he decided.
"Really? Seems like tossing the Commander overboard would be helpful…"
"It wouldn’t make a difference. People like the Commander always take power. People like him run the Resistance, too. It’s what I was trying to tell you earlier today… the Citadel breeds for that kind of man. That means even the ones trying to put a stop to the regime act like the regime. So, why bother fighting back at all?"
"My… grandmother always told me to be the change I wanted to see in the world. That’s worth a bother, right?"
"Adorable, but it doesn’t work that way here," Quinn stated, bleakly. "The Adams always take power, no matter what flag they fly under. They keep all non-Adams out of the running, through massive harassment and/or bullets. Still, it’s not utterly futile; settle into a mid-tier position of power, maybe you can get some good done while they aren’t looking. That’s my plan, anyway."
"That’s all you’re aspiring to? Just… flying under the radar and nudging things along?"
"Best you can realistically hope for," he confirmed, returning to his viewer. "Only cream and bastards rise."
"No. I don’t buy it," she spoke, hounding him on the topic. "I say bastards can and should fall. My friends and I have stopped them cold a few times now, and without relying on a bastard’s brute force to do it. I mean, the most dangerous phrase in the language is ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ So, we found a better way…"
"Must be nice, living in a total paradise where everybody hugs each other all day," he mumbled, leaning back to load a fresh newspaper fiche.
"I didn’t say it was THAT, either. …ugh. Whatever. Let’s get back on track. What, exactly, do mason jars have to do with 1957?"
"Nothing. Everything. Not sure yet. As far as I can tell from what’s in front of me, 1957 was a year like any other year, aside from the population surge. Look… it’s getting fantastically late here. If we don’t find anything soon we’ve gotta get back to our dorms or we’ll be MIA. We could already be in ridiculous trouble if Adam comes to his senses and tells anyone you’re a rogue Builder…"
Which brought Penelope around to thinking about that moment. After getting caught up in the rush of bloody vendetta, she’d completely forgotten what kicked off the entire chain of events.
"Did you really tell him I’m ‘probably an okay person?’" she asked. "Knowing full well he’d maul you for it? I thought you wanted to fly under the radar."
This time, Quinn didn’t take his eyes off the news articles. But he did pause to collect his thoughts again. Despite being sharp with a snap reply most of the time… when he needed to make himself clear, he took the time to do so.
"Against all common sense… yes, I did," he admitted. "Wouldn’t have mattered if I lied. He constructs his own narrative, builds his own answer before even asking the question. Tell him truth or lies, it won’t matter, he can always find a reason in your words to kick your ass. …but yes, some tiny stupid part of me was hoping he’d ultimately listen to sense and at least back off. We’ve supposedly all got the same goal, after all."
"Saving the Citadel," Penelope agreed.
She returned to her reading, while mentally trying to put all three of them in the same circle. It was a rough fit, given she was predisposed to loathing Adam Wincott and everything he stood for. But… he did have a strong desire to defeat the Enemy. If anything, that’s what drove him to give Penelope his little "advice" tidbits, even drove him to try and beat his own flavor of sense into Quinn. Ultimately, Adam wanted to save the Citadel, and assumed his duty was to whip everybody else into the same fighting shape…
So many deaths, in the name of that cause. The obituary section, which normally covered a quarter of each paper, had scaled up to a third in 1957. Heartfelt testimonials from family members to the heroism of young soldiers who died in battle…
Her fingers paused, before they could twiddle the metal knob that would move a magnifying lens elsewhere.
"Deaths," she realized.
"Hmm?" her research partner asked, not looking up.
"How many deaths are considered… normal, in the course of one year?" she asked him. "I’m seeing a lot of deaths in the paper. Never part of the official reports, they’re going on an on about new troop movements and new fronts and the surge, but… everywhere else there’s death. It’s spread all through the paper. …wait wait that’s it—! I remember, I… hang on!"
In a flash, she was flipping through the drawer of tiny newspaper slides… and came up with the January 1958 paper. Loaded it, and the front page headline said it all.
RECORD LOSSES IN ONE YEAR OF INTENSE FIGHTING.
"It’s not 1957 we need to look at, it’s 1958," she explained. "Because they waited that long to officially admit it. Yeah, yeah, I remember now! It was from my second day in history class, all about the opening of Memorial Cemetery, how it was built for honored war dead in 1958…"
The boy pushed up his glasses, studying the article in detail. Another moment of silence fell, as he digested the new information. And as much as he didn’t want to find a shred of truth to Penelope’s mad rantings…
"We need slides from 1974," he realized. "One year after the second state-sanctioned population boom."
A half hour later, and they had all the numbers they needed.
The pattern bore out across the entirety of the Citadel’s history. The army pushed, the Enemy pushed back. Troop estimates matched Enemy estimates. Every surge was met with an equal crash, returning the Citadel to a stalemate once more. Even if the government refused to fully admit it… every little bit of information piled up on the edges, showing the true overall shape.
What’s more… when the Citadel was taking heavy losses, heavier than ever and forced to fall back… they were met with less Enemy resistance. The Enemy never surged, not unless the Citadel surged. If the Citadel fell… the Enemy fell, as well. A perfect mirror…
The flawless symmetry of it made sense to Penelope, no matter how nonsensical it was. To Quinn, the truth was harder to swallow.
"That’s not possible," he decided immediately. "It’s Military Tactics 101. When your enemy is crippled, you press the advantage. The Enemy’s ruthless! They torture, they kill, they eat the wounded. They’re complete animals with no self-control. Why wouldn’t they run the weakened Citadel forces down into the ground…?"
"They’re not human, Quinn."
"I think I just neatly summarized that point, didn’t I?"
"No, I mean, you’re thinking they’d act like humans. They don’t. They’re… a concept," Penelope tried to explain. "A focus point of this dream… this Citadel, I mean. That means they adhere to their concept first and reality second. …look, let’s skip over the why for now. The facts still bear out: it’s impossible to beat the Enemy using an army. They’re always exactly sufficient to fight an army of any size. Which means…"
"Recruiting from the City of Angles won’t change anything," Quinn realized.
"I don’t get it. The Commander has to already know that," she reasoned. "He’s not a complete idiot. Why would he go ahead with conscripting my people…?"
"Maybe he’s hoping they’ll bring some new tactic to the table?" Quinn suggested, uncertain.
"…do Citadel people go Picasso? No, no, of course they don’t, Bedlam doesn’t exist here. They don’t know they ‘should’ go cubist, so they don’t. …and if they don’t know they SHOULD be unable to beat the Enemy…"
"Nevermind. Let’s just say I think I’ve got this mess figured out," she summarized.
"Well, I’m glad one of us does. You are a very confusing person, Penelope Yates. And… I am going back to bed now, because I’m tired and in enough trouble already."
"’kay. I’ll be heading out, I think."
"What, to walk around the compound again? I’m lucky it was only Adam who spotted me when I was getting some air tonight. You get spotted by one of the wall guards and being sent back to your room will be a blessing. Should have the sense not to deliberately chase trouble…"
"I solve trouble, I don’t chase it. And anyway, no. I’m heading out as in ‘leaving Command School forever,’" she explained, getting to her feet and thankful to be off that uncomfortable wooden chair. "There’s nothing more I can learn here. I’d hoped I could get something useful out of it, but if I’m going to win the war, I need new perspectives… maybe the Resistance. Or maybe to find Cass and Vivi, my friends, the ones who stop tyrants. Yeah; I’ll hook up with them, and then we’ll sort everything out. No problem."
"’No problem.’ Really," Quinn repeated, dubious. "And you’re going to look up a Resistance safehouse on your Wikiternet or something equally imaginary?"
"I’ll figure something out."
"You’ll get shot. Just because nobody wants to leave Command School doesn’t mean there aren’t rules about leaving Command School," he spoke. "It counts as defecting from the army. You can make bathrooms into funhouses, but are you bulletproof? …ARE you bulletproof, actually?"
"Well, no, but… look, I said I’d figure something out and that means I’ll figure something out, okay?"
"You’re serious about this, aren’t you?" Quinn asked, incredulous. "You’re actually going to wander out into the Citadel—a place you know nothing about—looking to find some old Angle buddies?"
"Hey, a tour guide would be lovely, but I doubt I’ll be able to find one. …or are you…?"
"Am I what…?"
He realized what she was implying after an awkward pause.
"No. Nooo no no. No. HELL no," Quinn protested.
"Well… why not? Quinn, c’mon, you’ve seen the same numbers I have," she pushed. "The war machine simply doesn’t work. If you keep playing along like a good little student, fly under the radar, and toiling away beneath shouty Leftenants… you’ll get nothing done. Nothing at all."
"That’s… not a proven fact. It’s just a theory. —I mean, what do you have in mind? What comes after ‘walk out the door,’ exactly?"
"I’ve got a plan," Penelope insisted. "I think I figured out how these Citadel aspects like the Enemy work. …I mean, I’ve got some of a plan. Some-of-a-plan which will definitely mature into all-of-a-plan, in time…"
"Then send it up through proper channels, and… and they won’t listen, Because you’re not like them. Right. —but that’s still no reason to throw your life away by striking out on your own, or hooking up with the Resistance! The Commander doesn’t tolerate betrayal. Penelope, he’ll kill you!"
"He already killed my father, and my friends," she told him, with far less passion than her earlier pleas.
"All the more reason not to—"
"My father and my friends were trying to do what’s right. That’s what they died for. It’s worth dying for; better that than to do nothing at all. Now… I’m leaving, Quinn, with or without you. I’m going to fight for what I believe in. I get the feeling some part of you wants to believe in it, too… after all, why are you even here? In Command School. Or even just in this library with me! Why follow me? Why tick off Adam in the first place by sticking up for me? Why do ANY of these things if you’re so hell-bent on coasting on the rules of the Citadel?"
"Do you have a plan for getting us out without being seen, at least?" he asked.
"Yeah, that part shouldn’t be too hard—wait. Us?"
It took visible effort to move his head, but… he nodded in confirmation.
"Someone has to keep you from getting holes blown in your head, and for lack of a better option, that’s going to have to be me," he reasoned.
"Hey, I may not be bulletproof, but I can defend myself. You got an eyeful of that first hand, remember?"
"Actually, I’m counting on the fact that whatever living nightmare you are is something I’d rather have defending me," he explained. "What I’m providing isn’t some majestic white knight’s shield, no matter what Adam thinks. I’ll be providing basic street smarts to a hapless tourist. I mean, it’s four in the morning! Do you even know where you can go to safely sleep for the night before you start looking for your friends?"
"Right. So once we’re outside the compound, I’ll get us to safety. I know a few places. In return, you keep them from horribly murdering me for helping you. Deal?"
With the roles officially reversed, it was Penelope’s turn to be hesitant and anxious while Quinn pressed her with stern determination.
Realistically, she barely knew this boy. No matter how intense a moment they’d shared, it was only a moment in time. She asked him to toss everything he believed in by the wayside after only a few hours of collaboration. Granted that was sort of her whole thing, sweet-talking people into raising her banner into battle… she did it purely by instinct, just now. But this was the Citadel. Serious, serious business if things went wrong…
"Uh. Look, I got a little heated there. Maybe I was out of line to push you into this. I mean, you’ll be defecting from the army," Penelope felt she had to point out. "You might want to sleep on this. We might want to sleep on this. It’s been a crazy night, tensions running high, sooo…"
"The longer we wait, the longer Adam has to collect his wits and decide to seek reprisal," Quinn reasoned. "Even if nobody believes him, he’s got enough sway to do some very horrible things. …I speak from personal experience."
"Okay, but… are you sure? Are you sure about this, Quinn?"
A dark expression fell over the boy’s features. He adjusted his glasses, to give it a final thought… and this time, his nod was firm.
"Doesn’t matter if I’m sure about it. It is what it is; the army’s not going to win this fight. I want this fight won. If you can make that happen… I’m in. If it turns out that you’re an escaped mental patient and can’t actually do it, well… I’ll run and hide and whimper and eventually, I don’t know, I’ll… figure out how to make it happen myself. Just… screw it. Screw the regime. I don’t care about them. I’ve always been in this for my Citadel."
For all his book learning and data checking skill, Quinn had absolutely no idea what to do with his hands when a girl wrapped your torso up in a big friendly hug. They flailed uselessly at the air, for lack of a better option.
Presumably that would suffice, given Penelope’s bright smile when she let go.
"Right. Let’s GTFO together," she agreed.
"Yes. Okay. Let’s do that, whatever that is," Quinn agreed, uncertain what he was agreeing to.
Command School had a sub-basement, which connected to a service tunnel, which connected to the outside world. At least, it had organically grown all those things as of that morning.
The bricks danced to her tune, now. She could feel the desperation within the materials she shifted around to carve her escape hatch… everything here had been built by a Builder at one point. What little she knew about the Builders, that "fear built strong walls," that was reflected right down to the stones of the Citadel. If anything, the Citadel breathed easier as Penelope rearranged it to her whim. At least someone with a loving touch was building here, now…
It was a relief to her as well, honestly. Finally able to flex her newly found muscles as the Lucid child, and without the rage that blinded her during that bathroom attack. She took great care in flowing with the needs of the tunnel… it was more than digging a hole, had to be more, had to be a civil engineering project onto itself. Moving with the shape and flow of the Citadel, rather than against it. BOMB SHELTER and EMERGENCY signs had popped up here and there, to guide their way… aspects of the Citadel’s will flowing through Penelope’s will and out into manifest reality.
Only halfway through the tunnel, she realized how much this was weirding out Quinn Qureshi.
"I’ve never see a Builder in action," he admitted. "I heard they’re pants-crappingly scary, but…"
"I haven’t been a ‘Builder’ for long. Well. Not that I knew of," Penelope explained. "I was trying to ignore that part of me for years, but… in the end, I couldn’t pretend I was totally ordinary, not anymore. Not if I wanted to save my City. Since then, well… it’s a lot easier to deal with it. But I’m still pretty ordinary, even if I can do, uh, this."
"I hope so, considering I’ve heard Builders drive people insane and pulverize brains into goop and stuff."
"Yeah, I don’t do that. I mean, I haven’t done that yet. —I won’t be doing that, okay? It’s cool. It’s cool."
On emerging to a quiet street… Penelope saw something she hadn’t seen at any other point in her life.
Perfectly aligned and symmetrical city blocks.
Every intersection was comprised of perfect ninety-degree turns. Every building stood in lock step with others, designed by Builders from meticulously programmed blueprints. This was a City which grew from the minds of men, not from the mind of a comatose patient dreaming of wild landscapes; those men had a keen interest in making their Citadel make sense. Which, to Penelope, felt like its own peculiar brand of nonsense.
Her companion noticed the stunned shock, even if he wasn’t sure what it represented.
"We should get moving," he suggested. "Gotta get off the road, at least. Sun will be up soon, curfew isn’t quite over, and the place I’ve got in mind is ten miles away. We can wait for daybreak and find a taxi, but we’re going to need new clothes first. Can you… I don’t know, make normal clothes? Like you make creepy tunnels and scary bathrooms?"
"Uh… I work with buildings, mostly. It’s a City thing. I’ve never tried just… stuff. I could try, or maybe make a clothing shop, but I don’t think this is the place and time to experiment…"
"Right. Hmm. How are you at climbing fire escapes?"
"Are you kidding? I’m Magical Princess Urban Spelunker-chan. Fire escapes are for scrubs."
The remainder of the morning blurred together. After all, she was operating on very little sleep and had just rearranged a good chunk of the Citadel with conscious effort; even Magical Princess Urban Spelunker-chan needed to take five after something like that.
Clothing was obtained by skittering up a fire escape, to dangle precariously three stories up while yanking a bunch of civilian duds off a drying line. Wooden clothespins clattered into the alley below, as Quinn and Penelope retrieved ill-fitting garments. Technically theft, so Penelope took mental note of the address, to maybe send them some cash later.
With unsteady feet (from the vertigo and lack of sleep) she stood at a street corner with Quinn, wearing drab and slightly damp clothing, waiting for a taxi that threatened to never come. After sunrise, despite it being now legally A-OK to hit the streets according to the P.A. systems on every corner, few people did. Fortunately, a black cab pulled around to pick up the wayward teens a few minutes later.
She barely registered Quinn’s explanation that they were headed to a rent-by-hour hotel, a disreputable place for hookers and drunks and the like. Perfect hiding spot. Mute nods met his words; by this point he was firmly in the driver’s seat of this little adventure. Aside from, well, not actually driving the taxi himself.
Penelope wasn’t even sure how Quinn paid for the place. She just followed along behind him, up a seven-story walk-up with an obnoxiously spiral staircase. Had to resist the urge to install an elevator herself; exhaustion left her a bit fuzzy, to the point where that sounded like a really good idea.
Finally, ultimately, in the end, at long last… she fell face forward onto a creaky old bed and passed out.
Too tired to even properly wander around the Metadream. The disruption last night had completely wrecked her. Still, she gave it a try… a hazy thing, floating above the idea of the Citadel, through the sea of dreams.
All over the Citadel, people were waking from slumber. Little lights didn’t wink out, but they did dim, as they became alert in the "real world." All these little lights, like the lights back home… all the same Metadream, in the end. A dream of dreams, no matter where you dreamed them…
Idly, she hoped to find that strange man again. There was a number burned into the back of his hand, she’d focused in on that when they met, feeling it was important. Thirty-One…
So much I could tell you about what’s going out there, back on Earth. Maybe you’d like to know your real name? Or how you ended up this way? Or better yet, how about the great mystery of what happened to Patient 31, the Sleepwalker…?
Taunting words from the lips of a dead man. Jack Hayes, spitting in her face at the collapse of all his plans. Mocking how little she understood.
The Sleepwalker, Patient 31, whatever his name was… he would have answers. He had answers, and refused to share them with her last night. (This night. Whatever.) She could make him talk. She could pull the answers from his head… which of course would be a bloody awful thing to do, so no, she wouldn’t do that. But she could, if she had to…
Sadly, he was gone from the Metadream. She tried following the whiff of ash and soot that she’d smelled in his metaphorical clothes, like a bloodhound, but the trail ended above one of the many prisons the Citadel used to stuff unmutual people into little safe boxes. Would Penelope have to break into prison to get her answers…? Well, no, not likely. If he was in there, clearly he could access the Metadream anyway. This is where they’d talk, when it came to that.
For now, it was time to wake. Her body told her as much, even if her internal clock had been smashed with a sledgehammer.
The sun had been coming up when she fell into bed. It was sliding back down towards the horizon, signaling mid-afternoon, when she roused.
First thing she saw, from sideways perspective, was Quinn. Asleep in a chair.
Of course. Because she’d gone and claimed the bed, the instant they set foot in the room. Slept at a funny angle across it, too. He wasn’t going to push her out, or creepily spoon up to her or anything. For lack of a better option, he’d done his own passing-out in that uncomfortable looking chair.
Penelope roused him, eager to at least get his neck out of that nasty-looking position.
"Oh. Hey," Quinn greeted, fumbling at the nearby end table for his glasses. "Ugh. What time is it…?"
"Late as butts. I’m starving, too. Can we get room service?"
"What’s room service?"
"That’s a no, then. Any good restaurants in the area, then?"
First thing Penelope thought of on entering what could only be loosely defined as a "restaurant" was: Milly would be so freaked out right now. No matter how much she (wrongly) idolized her departed friend and the wonderfully normal life she (didn’t) lead, it was a failing of the sheltered suburban lifestyle that led to Milly rarely interacting with what could be considered the "seedy" aspects of the City.
Penelope, on the other hand, had explored in and around and underneath every aspect of her City… including places many wished to pretend didn’t exist. Places where people lived when they had nowhere better to live. Couldn’t turn a blind eye to places like District 23 or Seventh Street, not when your occupation as an urban explorer and role as an urban goddess kept you in direct contact with those locales.
So, much to Quinn’s surprise, she hadn’t batted an eyelash at the fly-by-night hotel they were staying in, the painted jezebels who occupied its lobby and nearby street corners, or any other hint that this part of the Citadel was a bloody awful place to be. And when they found a 24-hour grill that presumably served up meat cooked to presumably safe standards, she was more than willing to grab even a not-particularly-clean table and have a seat.
"The patrols assigned to this ward tend to slack off," Quinn was explaining, as they looked over the menu of alleged cuisine available for the asking. "You’re more likely to find a checkpoint guard in a liquor store or a whorehouse than actually at their checkpoints. If you’re hot on finding the Resistance, I figured this was as good a place to start as any. Certainly a good place to hide, at least."
Despite her nonchalant acceptance of the scenery, it did puzzle Penelope. She voiced her concerns while trying to pick between "Turkey" or "Beef" with no further descriptors provided.
"I always figured the Citadel was, y’know, this oppressive terrordrome of goosestepping doom run by law-and-order control freaks. Why would the regime allow a place like this ward to even exist…?"
"Bribes. Apathy. Indulgence. Plenty of reasons," Quinn reasoned. "If the guards don’t HAVE to work their asses off busting every violation they see, they won’t. Every now and then there’s a raid, just to show they’re earning their paychecks, but it’s rare. Nobody wants to bother taking action if nobody is paying attention. Humans are rotten to the core, after all."
"That’s horrible. And it’s horrible that you genuinely believe things have to be that horrible."
"I call it like I see it, and I’ve seen plenty."
A disinterested waitress who couldn’t have been much older than Penelope served up two plates of Plausible Meats, interrupting the discussion briefly.
It still shocked her, seeing so much of the population skewing so young. The men especially were rarely outside of their twenties… it was rare to see an old gentleman, unless he clearly was a man of means. Older women, certainly, particularly in the workforce all around them… but by and large, it felt like Logan’s Run around here. Right down to the underage waitress.
But… the Citadel got to define its own laws regarding what "underage" meant. Hence the heavy emphasis on getting knocked up in the middle of your teenage years as a good thing. Adding "pedo’s paradise" to the list of Citadel sins felt like a drop in a very large bucket, even if it was a hell of a drop to add.
As Penelope tucked into what was possibly turkey, she decided to dig a little deeper. Winning the war meant understanding the Citadel, which meant understanding Quinn’s viewpoint. The Sleepwalker had said as much, said she needed to understand… no sense putting that off.
"So, why are you such a Negative Nancy?" she started.
"A what?" he asked, unfamiliar with the phrase. "I’m not negative. I’m realistic. This is the reality I live in; a cornucopia of lesser evils, adding together into a big pile of suck. I applied to Command School because I knew I’d never achieve anything from deep under that pile. I’d just be another dead man. Like my brothers."
"I’m… sorry to hear that."
"Why? You didn’t know them."
"I mean in general. Like… nobody should have to die so pointlessly. Can’t even say they defended the Citadel, not after… what we found out last night."
Quinn turned his fork twice in his fingers, before speaking.
"Think that’s ultimately why I decided to come along on your wild goose chase," he admitted. "I thought by working myself into the command structure, I could make less stupid decisions than the officers who marched my brothers to their death. I could save a couple lives, at least. …but it wouldn’t matter, would it. What’s the point? The Enemy can’t be stopped; they’ll always beat us."
"What? No, no. I think our research proves they CAN be stopped. I’m still trying to figure out the specifics, but…"
"But it doesn’t change the fact that my family tree lost most of its new branches," Quinn filled in.
The twirling fork stopped twirling, as Quinn went back to eating his meal between tidbits of dialogue. Like nothing happened.
"So who’re these friends of yours that you want us to find, anyway?" he asked.
"Huh? Oh… Cass and Vivi," Penelope answered, having more difficulty shifting gears. "My friend Cass, she’s a really cool poet, amazing writing skills. Vivi’s a nightclub manager and a dancer."
"And… this helps your personal war effort, how? Are we going to defeat the Enemy with inspirational pop songs or something? Maybe get them played on the Radio?"
Penelope’s knife and fork scraped loudly against her plate, as an attempt to cut her poultry crashed head on into her own surprise.
"That’s it!" she declared, loudly enough to be heard. …then settled into her seat, looking sheepish as the other patrons of the diner gradually returned to their food.
Quinn slouched in his seat, partly in an instinctive need to shrug off the sudden burst of attention, partly in depressive horror at the earlier statement.
"…please tell me you aren’t serious," he begged. "Please tell me your grand plan to defeat the Enemy isn’t to sing and dance at them."
"No no, that’s not, it’s… I think… yeah. I think… yeah! I think I’ve got it," Penelope spoke rapidly, interrupting her own train of thought each step of the way. "It all makes sense! Why the Commander’s bringing over City folks, how the Enemy reacts to the Citadel, the reason why you say they can’t be beaten, the stalemate, the voice on the Radio, the memetic nature of cubism, the spread of the Blue-Eyed Plague… of course. It’s all so simple!"
Quinn’s horror deepened considerably.
"If you say the next step is to buy a bunch of pushpins, lengths of colored string, and sticky notes so you can map out a vast conspiracy on your Wall of Crazy… I am leaving and not coming back," he warned.
"Okay, look, this isn’t going to make sense to you unless I do a LOT of explaining and I… think we’ve attracted enough attention already, so let’s finish eating and bounce," Penelope suggested. "I’ll try to explain when we get back to the room. …you might not like the answers, though. Even less than the other answers you already don’t like."
With a sigh, Quinn returned to his meal.
"On the run with a lunatic isn’t exactly how I pictured having my first date with a cute girl, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers," he commented. "As long as it doesn’t end in summary execution, I suppose I’ll take it."
And so, the remainder of the food was consumed in silence.
Although now, all those plans for how to end the war were shoved roughly aside, in favor of being silently terrified of the simply stated declaration of her apparent new boyfriend.
Boyfriend. "Friend who is a boy," and yet, so much more packed into that single combination term.
Marcy had a lot of boyfriends, and every single one of them resulted in a painful breakup. Milly had a wonderful and loving boyfriend, and both of them got killed. Vivi… she didn’t seem to believe in "boyfriends" of a traditional sense, despite being amazingly sexually active. Oh, and Kut-ya-up Karla had a husband who she routinely injured during highly acrobatic naughty fun…
Not exactly a fine gallery of role models to draw from, in the end.
Not that Penelope really gave it a lot of thought, honestly. Far too busy to make with the lovey-doveys, way too occupied with saving her entire City from one menace or another. She’d often considered herself absolutely horrible girlfriend material, too weird to date, and as a result she rarely gave it a second thought. Well. She had fancied Lucas, for at least half a day, before realizing he was way better off with Milly…
Now she was walking down a street with a "beau" at her arm, as Grandma Scarlett would’ve put it. One which had directly (if jokingly) talked about their newfound dating-type relationship.
Of course, it was completely insane. They were fugitives on the run from a tyrant, trying to save two worlds from the brink of disaster. Mutually aligned interests and a common foe, that’s all, right? Besides, it’s not like any sort of relationship between them would have legs. After this mess was done she’d be heading back home to her City, and Quinn likely would want to stay on to try and help his Citadel.
Besides, she just met him! It was all moving so fast. (Everything in her life moved fast, why not this?) She was still grieving for her father, anyway. Bad timing. No. No, this was a horrible idea in every respect, and obviously wasn’t going to go anywhere. Like all other past fancies, she had to put it aside. The crisis du jour was far more important, and besides, she was awful girlfriend material. Too weird. Too alien. Nice guy like Quinn, he was better off finding a nice Citadel girl. Not some crazy Angle.
"Uh. Penelope. Peneeeelopeee…"
…and he kept insulting her, didn’t he? Calling her weird and crazy. What a jerk! Only she was allowed to call herself weird and crazy—
"Citadel to Penelope, come in Penelope."
"What?!" she snapped back, as rapidly as her thoughts had turned sour.
Quinn hopped back a full step, hands up in surrender.
"Whoa, whoa. Peace and love, comrade," he tried, to disarm her. "I was just asking why we walked right by the hotel. To say you’re a little distracted is to say the sky is a little blue."
"Of course I’m distracted!" she complained. "You’re dating me!"
"You said you were!"
"Uh… you mean the desperate joke I was cracking to help soothe my worry regarding our impending doom?" Quinn asked. "Well, hey, if you WANT it to be a date, I guess it does match up to the classic parameters—"
"And you called me cute," she accused. "How dare you call me cute! I am not cute. I am weird and dangerous and fierce and don’t exist within the bounds of conventional reality!"
"I’m not seeing how these factors preclude your ability to be cute, but sure, let’s go with that," he suggested, growing increasingly nervous. "You’re scary and cute and we were on a date. Is that acceptable?"
"No, of course not!"
"You’re going to have to give me more to work with, then, because I’m failing to grasp what exactly you want out of me. Why is it such a huge deal to go on a date or call a girl cute? Seems to me given our situation, a little social fun is a fine way to relax given we’ve put ourselves directly in harm’s way…"
"It’s… the… just… I… agh! It’s important, okay?" Penelope tried. "You can’t just casually call a girl cute or declare something a date. There’s… courtship, or something. I’m pretty sure there’s courtship. I don’t actually know the details but it’s not something to take lightly! You’re making our life-or-death struggle into something silly—"
"Dammit, Penelope, that’s exactly WHY I’m doing it!"
…and again, they were drawing too much attention. Having it out in public. With an eye-rolling groan… Quinn walked to the nearest secluded alley entrance, waving quickly for her to follow.
Only once the passers-by had passed by did he explain. If anything, the moment of enforced silence helped him gather his thoughts.
"Would you mind if I make something of a speech?" he asked, first. "I think it’s something that needs to be said. And understand, this isn’t me talking down to an Angle, like I know better. It’s just… I want to help you understand. Okay?"
"O… okay," she agreed, likewise a bit calmer after the mandatory silent moment.
"Good. Now, Penelope… look around you," he said. "People getting drunk, laughing, having a good time. But it’s a desperate good time. We’re all dead men, Penelope. One day, sooner or later, we’re going to die in this war. That’s why disreputable places like this ward exist, and why the regime lets it slide. …maybe on your world, companionship is this huge deal with multi-step guides in three-ring binders. Here… we’ve got so little time, we can’t waste it. We have to move by our hearts."
Now, Quinn looked out from the mouth of the alley… to the evening crowd, moving along sidewalks, rolling by in taxis. And a bit of pride entered his voice.
"This is my Citadel. We’re lonely, we’re broken, we’re constantly in danger. We joke, and they’re sad little jokes. We laugh and it’s hollow. We love, and it’s often quite desperate. All we can afford are casual relationships, because anything else will hurt too much in the inevitable end. Until this war is over… we have to accept that there’s nothing but the moment for us. So… if I’m joking, if I’m calling you cute or talking about dating… understand I’m both sincere and desperately trying to find some light of the situation. And… I’m sorry. I should’ve been more respectful of your boundaries."
Glad to have that off his chest, Quinn allowed himself a deep breath.
"Besides, I’d be lousy boyfriend material," he declared.
Which is probably why Penelope kissed him. They were both completely awful together, after all.
She probably could’ve stopped before backing him right into the alley wall and bonking his head against the bricks, but it was her first serious kiss and she was determined to make it work through sheer determination despite her lack of finesse or skill.
Only when he started mumbling something to try and catch her attention did she back off. Leaving the bewildered boy with glasses askew… pointing to a spot just over her shoulder.
"D… didn’t you say your… your friend’s names were Cass and Vivi?" he asked.
When she finally got her sense back, she turned around to see.
Wanted posters, with familiar faces…
RESISTANCE TERRORIST WATCH
WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE FOR TREASON
VIVI JØRGENSEN – CASSANDRA DERSHAM
MIRANDA WALKER – DAVE SMITH – KELSEY JONES
(MAY BE USING ALIASES)
REPORT ANY SIGHTINGS
Hot kissing immediately flushed from her mind, Penelope dashed across the narrow alley to study the posters in closer detail.
"Holy crap, it’s them!" Penelope declared. "It’s really them! Wow, even Miranda?! And Dave and Kelsey came over here too? Wow. Wow! And they’re with the Resistance, I was right! —they got Vivi’s surname wrong and, uh, wow, I never knew Cass was ‘Cass Dersham,’ but… I KNEW if we left Command School, we could find my friends, we could make this work! We found them, Quinn, we did it!"
"We… found pictures of them, at least," he commented, a bit slower to shift back into gear. "Finding them will be another matter entirely. ‘Wanted dead or alive’ implies they won’t be wandering around in public, which will make this task a tad challenging…"
"Mason jars! In those classified ads you kept finding in those newspapers," she reminded him. "You said they were Resistance code. Well… my friends are with the Resistance now! Can we contact them using those codes?"
"I guess…? I don’t know. I mean, it seemed a simple enough cipher, but…"
"It’s gotta be worth a try. At the least we can get in touch with the Resistance in general that way, and from there, my friends. Okay! How do we place a classified ad in tomorrow’s paper?"
"Call the newspaper, and dump another wad of my rapidly draining savings account on their heads," Quinn spoke with misery.
"Sounds great! Let’s do that! Got a phone with you?"
"…why would I have a telephone on my person? The cord wouldn’t reach. And besides, think this through, Penelope," he begged. "The Resistance might think it’s a trap if we don’t entice them somehow. Anyone smart enough could’ve cracked that code, with enough research. You need a worm on that hook…"
For that, Penelope had an answer ready. One with a little impish grin to accompany it.
"We’re placing the ad in the name of the ‘Lucid Child,’" she decided. "And she’s got some mason jar trouble that needs solving."
Step one was finding a working pay phone; the cheap hotel they were holed up in didn’t offer telecommunications of any sort. Placing the ad was a simple matter, after that… Quinn reading off the message he’d encoded, using Penelope’s buzzwords to draw the attention of her friends. They’d have results after the presses started rolling in the morning.
With curfew coming down soon, that left the remainder of the evening a blank slate. Still, better to wait in the hotel than to wander around as they’d been doing, even if these streets were allegedly forgotten by Citadel forces. Plus… Quinn had a request of his own.
"I want to know your plan," he said, after locking the hotel room door behind them. "For serious, now. Both the how and the why."
"It’s not going to make a lot of sense to you," she warned. "And the background on why I think it’ll work, well… it’s something you won’t want to make sense of. Scary stuff."
"Try me. My terror tolerance has risen considerably in the last twenty-four hours."
So… at risk of losing the trust of someone who may-or-may-not be her boyfriend… Penelope opened up.
It was policy, now. Her allies deserved the truth; hiding details from them for the sake of their own sanity never worked, and frequently left her paralyzed while trying to recall who knew what. Instead, she’d sat all her friends down and told them of the dream, and the dreamer… at risk of blowing their minds out.
Maybe it started with Archie. Good old Uncle Archie, who followed them to the Heart of the City, who learned the truth… and faded away, after that. He couldn’t cope with the concept of reality being a dream. What right did Penelope have to inflict that knowledge on others? On her friends, Milly and Lucas, whom she kept in the dark until the darkness came for them…?
But, no. Honestly was still the best policy. And that meant appearing like even more of a lunatic to Quinn Qureshi.
She started with the dreamers, and the CDC. He was a rational boy; opening discussion with the rational side of things, how all of this was the result of some medical experiment gone horribly weird, that would go over well with him. She explained how each world was the creation of a single dreamer. She explained the aspects, how three views worked in concert and conflict to define each dream. And finally, she wrapped with the truth that started her own understanding of it all… her own role as a living aspect of the City of Angles.
To his credit, Quinn took it well. Or at least, he was excellent at hiding his reactions.
"I think… I need to work under the assumption that all of that is true," he decided, in the end. "I’m not saying I fully believe it, but let’s say for now that it’s a valid interpretation of the situation. With that in mind… what’s your plan, and how does it relate?"
"People in my world get infected with cubism because they believe they should be infected with cubism," Penelope explained. "People in your world fight the Enemy to a stalemate because they believe they should fight the Enemy to a stalemate. These are accepted as the rules that dictate how the City and Citadel work. I think that the Commander’s realized that, too."
"How do you figure?"
"Simply surging the Citadel population doesn’t work. He needs outsiders; he’s importing my City people to fight his war because they have no preconceived notions about whether the war can be won," Penelope said. "If he gets enough City conscripts on the frontline, ones which haven’t had the pessimism of the Citadel beaten into their heads since birth… it may be enough to break the stalemate."
"It… would make sense, given those conditions. It’s a gamble, but the Commander’s taken gambles with human lives before," Quinn spoke. "He’s fiercely determined to see an end to the war. Other Commanders across history were content with enough minor victories to keep their regime popular. I don’t think Yates cares about popularity…"
"I don’t think it’s going to work, though. I think the negativity of the Citadel will get to them before those numbers make a difference; fear’s pumping out over the airwaves, it’s drilled into your heads by teachers and Leftenants, it’s commonly accepted thinking about how things are here. To the point where even an otherwise clever guy like you buys into that complete stupidity."
"Thanks…? I think. Let’s go with thanks," Quinn decided.
"But if belief shapes reality, that cuts both ways; negative and positive," Penelope continued. "Negative, a suicide song spreads across the connection we all share within the dream. Negative, weather patterns follow belief in the weather, and a hurricane prediction causes a hurricane. But… positives exist. A few thousand people thinking ‘What if this world could be whatever we wanted it to be?’ caused the world to be whatever they wanted it to be. What if we could flip the negative belief that the Enemy cannot be beaten… into a positive belief?"
Quinn’s accurate memory recall worked against him, here.
"Oh dear god. You actually are going to defeat the Enemy with inspirational pop song," he realized.
"Uh, no. No. It’s considerably more complicated than that, and… I still have the particulars to work out. That’s why I need my friends, to pool together what we have and come up with the final answer. But… sort of accurate, I guess? That’s the core of the plan: we convince the Citadel the war can be won. Otherwise, well, we’re never going to win the war, yes?"
With the big finish to Penelope’s madcap dance number completed… she waited for a reaction from her new partner in crime.
It was a lot to ask him to accept, on top of all the other drastic shifts in his world view he’d had to accept recently. She wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he walked right out the door.
While he wasn’t willing to mirror her boundless enthusiasm for this "plan," he was willing to turn it over and over and over within his mind until he offered a brief nod of approval.
"I guess it’s worth a try," he agreed.
Which earned him another bone-crushing hug.
"Mmff," he added.
"We can do this. I know we can," Penelope declared, overjoyed. "It’s the aspects, I think. That’s the in-road to making it happen. I’ve got more research to do and more brainstorming, but I bet you we can make this work, and… um."
Realizing she’d turned their physical distance into something measurable in micrometers, Penelope released her grip.
"…for someone who’s uncomfortable with casual romantic relationships, you hug like an armored vest," Quinn suggested, trying to unkink his elbows. "Look, it’s getting late as hell. I think we should both get to bed, so we can get up early enough to grab the morning paper."
"R-Right. Okay, that means I’ll take the chair, and you take the bed," Penelope offered. "Only fair after I hogged it last night. …or, uh, were you about to suggest…?"
"Of course not," Quinn stated, to cut that idea off. "Let’s be realistic here, you’re going to need to woo me with a couple more dinners before I’m willing to put out. Plus, you snore. It’s a miracle I got any sleep at all last night."
A pillow smashed into his face, followed by a few spare blankets.
There was one truth that Penelope hadn’t revealed to her new companion.
It wasn’t in an effort to protect him; she kept this secret to avoid overcomplicating a complicated situation with more variables. Right now… Patient 31 represented one hell of an unknown variable. Until she had a better picture of who and what he represented, he wasn’t going to factor into her little one-woman stage production of The Penelope Monologues.
Fortunately, she’d gone to sleep. While most people used slumber time as downtime… for Penelope Yates, it was very much an uptime. Time to get some serious work done.
The bus stop she’d carved into the Citadel’s section of the metadream was still there, waiting for her when she drifted away from one layer of consciousness and into the next. A perfect starting point… and one she was more than willing to step away from, walk away, run away, fly away. Soaring deep into the dream, in search of her quarry.
No fear, now. Once upon a time this place had confused and even scared her; no longer. She plowed straight on into the abstract dark, determined to get the answers she sought.
Last time, his trail went cold over one of the many Citadel prisons. This time, she circled over that ominous structure… fear and depression and anger packed into flawless little boxes, sleepers in rows of pain. She faced that black pit and dove straight in.
The whiff of brimstone led her right where she wanted to be.
His light was present, in this overlaid construct. It didn’t look like the other soul-lights of the Citadel; something burning far wilder, far crueler than the others. This was flame, not simply a point of illumination.
Cupping hands to her nonexistent mouth, Penelope made her voice be heard.
"Patient 31!" she shouted. "Come out and plaaaay!"
Within moments… that flame was replaced by the metaphor of the man.
He floated in place, scarf dangling out behind him. The heat of his flesh beneath a heavy coat matched the fire that burned him from the inside out.
"I was trying to get some rest, you know," he spoke. "It’s not good to wander around in here when you’re exhausted. Cuts into your deep sleep state rather sharply…"
"You told me I needed to understand the Citadel. Well, I understand now," she spoke. "The war can’t end until the people believe it can end. It’s an eternal stalemate, enforced by all three aspects. NOW are you willing to give me some answers?"
The old man considered her words, visibly impressed.
"I knew you could do it," he spoke, with some pride. "If any of the patients would be able to find their own way forward, I knew it’d be you. You would succeed where I had failed miserably. So many failures…"
You were trying to atone. You made the effort; that alone is worthy of redemption.
"Horseshoes and hand grenades," he argued with the invisible voice over his shoulder.
"That’s Redemption, isn’t it? An aspect of your dream," Penelope recognized… sensing the vague shape of the ghost who accompanied Patient 31. "She followed you out of your dream. I can hear her just fine."
"Fascinating. Simply fascinating," the man replied. "Yes, you’ve come far, and you’ve much further yet to go. Further than I could get by myself… I was trying to do what you’re doing now, you realize. I was trying to end the stalemate, and save Patient 12: the Citadel, as you know him. To save all the patients, to atone for my sins…"
The man floated into a sitting position, cross-legged, meditative.
"I have no answers to give you, young Patient 23, because I have failed in every endeavor," he explained. "My efforts at saving the Citadel came to naught. Little I can offer you would have value. But… if you are to learn anything from me, it’d be to learn from my mistakes. I’ll tell you of my story, so that you can carry my torch forward. You can save the patient. Agreed?"
In turn, Penelope sat before him. A student and teacher, or perhaps the other way around.
"I’ll be the judge of whether or not you’ve got nothing of value," she spoke. "So. What’s your deal, anyway?"
"I am to blame for your sleep," he spoke. "And for that, I must burn forever."
The idea came to him in a dream. Not that he’d have told his colleagues that, of course; it’d be rightly dismissed as madness. As a result, he also had to keep the science of the vaccine to himself because there was little science involved. And yet… and yet, if it worked…
The influenza pandemic was this era’s black plague, as he saw it. It ruined lives, threatening to grow to the point where it’d tip the world into chaos. Something had to be done, and Doctor Bates was determined to do that something.
Some were volunteers. Some were volunteered; it was disturbingly easy to recruit sick orphans and asylum patients, society’s leftovers and outcasts. All of them were in the worst throes of the disease, delirious and unable to consent to the procedure. Others consented on their behalf, and that was enough for the loose standards of the day. It was enough for Bates, who knew that if the vaccine worked, it would save his world.
One injection. All it took. The slumber followed immediately.
Failure, absolute failure. He’d induced a coma which had no end; his projections had called for a week of slumber and regeneration, to allow the harmonic adjustments he’d made to their bodies to burn the disease from their veins. Instead, they would never wake again.
But… they weren’t aging, either. Something was going on, there. Something strange and new, unseen in the pages of medical science…
The government organizations that helped him sneak this research under the radar started burying it deeper in secrecy, while talking of expanding the program. They’d need more of the vaccine, of course, more test subjects. The potential for creating immortals was worth any cost. Any cost whatsoever, including the lives of men, women, and children.
And so Bates became the thirty-first patient, injecting the last of the vaccine into his own veins. After destroying all his research, of course, to ensure there would never be a thirty-second. He abandoned his work, his family, and all that remained in favor of saving potential victims by damning himself.
Hell welcomed him with open arms.
He was three-in-one, now. He was the Sinner, he was the Punishment, and he was Redemption. He suffered and bled and burned in his own personal inferno, and that was just. He was mocked and humiliated by the cackling of Punishment’s demons, and that was just. He was given hope enough to endure it all by the voice of Redemption, and that was just as well.
When he felt the pulses go out from other patients, desperate and lonely, he ignored them. When others began to appear within the dreams, called by the dreamers to help fill the void… he denied them. Nobody else would roast in his flames, nobody but the Sinner. He had enough awareness of his dream to turn away the echoes that resounded across the dream.
But in time… in time…
In time the voice of Redemption grew strongest of all.
There is a path you could follow. You could wake from this, destroy your prison, and seek redress with your victims. Save them from the inward struggles they are enduring. Walk the dream, and heal the sick. You must do this. Sitting here punishing yourself… how does that help anyone, aside from helping yourself feel better?
Breaking the chains was a simple affair; he’d crafted them himself, after all. Punishment’s forces shrieked in torment, but they knew their day was over. They were an aspect which was no longer needed; he carried Punishment inside himself, now, dedicating himself to a foolhardy quest which he could never truly complete…
Rising through the dream-of-dreams, back to his own body, waking…
The doctors at the "Centers for Disease Control," the newly-established organization that inherited his project, they were quite surprised to see him awaken. At first they were polite, eager to gather data. He was eager to get to work to save the other patients… but they were less eager for that. No, they saw this as a research opportunity. A living and conscious specimen to experiment on…
So, he simply walked away. His journey deep within dreams was only just beginning, after all.
"Wait. Wait, hold up," Penelope interrupted. "You… left Earth? And re-entered the metadream?!"
"Is that so hard to believe?" Doctor Bates asked. "You’ve seen the continuous flow of it all. We are all connected… to these places and to each other, as we are these places. Why should Earth be different, just because it’s the so-called ‘real’ world? Who’s to say Earth isn’t the dream of another? Ahh, but that’s abstract philosophy, and unrelated to the true problem: saving the patients. A task I have failed at miserably, despite my newfound freedom…"
"What happened to your prison? Your own dream, I mean."
"Destroyed utterly, and nothing of value was lost. Dreams fade, in the light of total consciousness," he spoke. "But the night I pulled you back from waking… I saved your City from that fate. Waking disrupts the harmonics I induced in your body, disrupts the reality you have created. That is the rule."
"Hmm. I’m not sure I believe in rules anymore, myself…"
"Regardless, we’re getting off track, and the night grows shorter," Bates reminded her. "You’ve heard my story. Did it give you the answers you seek?"
"Ssssort of. Maybe," Penelope replied, while putting the pieces together. "Your aspects were united, when you broke free. Even the ‘demons’ who tormented you were compliant with your escape, because you brought your prison with you. …I can still smell it, you know. You’re burning inside…"
"The Sinner has never been comfortable with colder climates. I include room temperature in that accounting. So tell me, Miss Penelope Yates… what are the Citadel’s aspects?"
"One: The Enemy," she counted, on her fingers. "That’s a no-brainer. Two: The Radio, I think. Something about it feels… mysterious and defining of the entire Citadel experience, more than some simple state mouthpiece could be. Three: The… uh… I think it’s something to do with the Builders, they feel like ‘oracles’ of a sort, like Cass or Milly. …you could just tell me instead of pop quizzing me, you know."
The names are irrelevant. The truth of the aspects is everything, and you cannot know that until you understand their pain inside and out.
"Yes, thank you, I got that much," Penelope replied, to the inner voice of Bates.
"Anything I could tell you would be tainted by my failure," Bates had decided. "I’d thought to strengthen one aspect against the others, but only made the situation far worse. No… it’s better for you to find your own path. I sense you’re already well on your way; they’re spiraling around you, drawn to you, just as they were in the City of Angles. Momentum is quite a powerful force, I find, but it won’t change my own fate. I will remain the Commander’s prisoner. It’s only just, after all…"
"So… that’s it? You’re giving up? What about pledging yourself to helping your patients?"
"I can do them more good than harm from behind bars," he’d accepted. "I’m a failure. I can’t save the Citadel, and I can’t save your City. So many wrongs, to make a right…"
…dawn. The light had risen through the poorly made glass window of the hotel room; Penelope could feel the warmth of it on her skin, somewhere beyond the dream. Time to wrap this up.
"I don’t care that you think you’re useless. I say you aren’t," Penelope insisted. "You’re just frustrated, and I get that. But once this mess with the Citadel is done… I’m going to need your help."
"Help with what…?"
"Help saving the other patients. All of them. That’s where this is going, isn’t it?" she recognized. "It’s not just about saving my own City. We can’t look at the world as ‘us’ and ‘them,’ there’s only us, and that includes all the patients. I remember that world of nooses and ghosts; that’s a place in desperate need. All of them need help to break through their internal conflicts, and that’s something I can’t do alone. So if I show you that it is possible for one patient to save another, will you help me keep it going…?"
Inner ear swimming, now. The world shaking. Was someone shaking her awake? It was too early, they’d set the alarm for eight in the morning and dawn had just cracked…
"I want your word, Bates!" Penelope called, feeling more and more distant by the moment. "This is bigger than either of us; you can’t sit in your own hell and stew there forever. That’s not what you want to be—!"
Collapsing, all of it. Bricks falling away, iron bars bending, the world turned upside down by the external force of waking. Eyes of one sort slamming shut while eyes of another sort slid open…
Distant screaming. The stomping of boots. Door after door, kicked open with wood splintering and hinges shattering…
"Dammit, wakey wakey!"
Penelope focused her sharpening senses on Quinn, who was doing his darnedest to snap her awake with a shake of the shoulders.
"It’s a raid," he explained, quickly. "Citadel troops are raiding the hotel."
"What? Wuh? But, but you said that rarely happens…!"
"Yes, well, ‘rarely’ doesn’t mean ‘never,’" he said, rushing to the window, to peer out. "And just our luck, no fire escape. Of course. Because nobody’s been enforcing the building codes in this district, and hey, scrap metal is valuable…"
She was on her feet, crossing the small hotel room, when the door exploded off its hinges. Not that actual explosives were used; one extremely solid boot was enough to make the rusted metal screws decide to surrender.
Instinctively she pressed against the back wall, as the three guards trained their rifles on her. Maximum distance between yourself and the death that awaited you was always wise, after all…
A soft hissing noise sounded from the doorway, instead of a series of supersonic gunpowder explosions.
After a horrified pause… the three guards began to whimper. Then panic. Then scream. Then, they simply ran, leaving their guns in a pile, discarded and forgotten. After all, at the moment they had other concerns; like finding the nearest dark corner to curl up in while rocking and hugging their knees.
Leaving only a woman wearing a gas mask, who was standing behind them with an aerosol can labeled "N.F. SAMPLE #4."
After waving her hand through the air to dissipate the tiny amount of gas she’d blasted them with, she pulled the mask up.
"Mason jars are one of the regime’s false-flag traps, Penelope," Miranda Walker explained. "They use it to suss out people who want to reach the Resistance. You’re lucky Vivi had contacts at the paper, or we’d never have caught up to you in time."
"I am very confused," Quinn felt he had to say.
As proof that Penelope was an equal opportunity bearhugger, Miranda immediately found a teenager adhering to her body.
"I’m SOOO happy to see you!" she declared. "Oh! Quinn, this is Miranda. Miranda, this is Quinn."
"And this is… NOT time for introductions," Miranda started, worming her way out of the grip. "We need to go. Stay behind me; I’ve got enough left in this can for any bastards we run into."
"Okay! …wait, N.F.? Is that stuff… Nightmare Fuel? Dougal’s terror drug? You brought that abomination into the Citadel?!"
"Whatever works," Miranda said, shaking up the can to prime it for the next soldier they ran into. "Now keep low, and—"
"No. I’ve seen firsthand what that concoction does to people; I’m not letting you use it on anyone, not even Citadel troops. C’mon! We’re better than that, Miranda!"
"This is also NOT the time to argue, kid—"
"You’re right, it’s not," Penelope agreed… turning to face the wall she’d been backed against previously. Stepping up to it, to lay hands on the cheap wallpaper. "Because we’re going to do this my way from now on."
She had the idea the morning they arrived, after all. A seven-story walk-up with no elevator? What sadist would build something like that?
The bricks agreed with her, parting way to expand an iron mesh grate in their wake. The metal box grew outward from there, lashed by sturdy cables and motors to a mechanism built into the roof. The shaft fell with the speed of gravity, impacting into the alley below with an inaudible crash. From there, metal and asphalt and stone joined forces to give the entire apparatus a proper ground-level exit…
The soft ding of Penelope’s new service elevator arriving left Miranda Walker speechless. A pleasant rendition of "The Girl from Ipanema" playing over a tinny speaker did enough talking for the three of them.
Penelope was nice enough to hold the OPEN DOOR button for them.
"Coming?" she prompted.
Rolling around in a truck with Cass wouldn’t have worked; according to Miranda, they were actually manning the checkpoints today. Apparently a hornet’s nest had been kicked over when they got a confirmation of an old honeypot code being phoned in by someone in this ward.
"The Commander’s not pleased that you fled his school," Walker explained, as they waded through a sewer underneath the stomping boots of mobilized troops. "If you’d just waited another day, I had a rescue plan at the ready…"
"No thanks. Knowing you, it’d probably be something awful, like… like weaponized Blue-Eyed Plague or something."
"…anyway, as far as we can tell, he still doesn’t know what you are. But given the axe he had to grind regarding your father, I suspect he’s not going to be lenient twice when it comes to the prodigal daughter. We’re going to need to lay low for some time before making any moves."
The male in their midst felt it wise to agree with the scary woman, despite being teamed up with a scary girl.
"I’m fine with this plan," Quinn added, trying to keep his hands hovering at chest-height despite the knee-height of the sludge he was wading through. "Staying hidden until the Commander gets bored would be a very, very good idea…"
Walker paused in her trudging, to cast glance over her shoulder. "Who’s this kid, exactly? You vouch for him, Penelope…?"
"Yes! Yes, he’s fine. Don’t nerve gas him or anything," Penelope insisted. "And we can’t hide forever; we need to end the war. Sooner, not later. That’s why you’re here, right, Ms. Walker? To fight the good fight and liberate your City? Let’s get started on that, today!"
"Rushing into things without a plan? Not how your father did things…"
"I have a plan! Most of one, I mean," Penelope corrected. "I just need a few more details about the Citadel’s inner demons before we launch into action. Specifically, I need to know more about the Radio and the Builders."
"It’s creepy and so are they. There, that’s everything I know about the Radio and the Builders," she concluded. "You want more than that, you’ll have to talk to Vivi and Kelsey. Suspect they’d have a more robust viewpoint to offer. …oh, hey, thought you might want this…"
Moving carefully to avoid dropping the object in the thick muck below, Miranda retrieved the device from a pocket on her jacket and passed it Penelope’s way. The weight and shape of it felt… very familiar. Very comforting…
Immediately, Penelope’s fingers moved to unlock the home screen, thumbing through row after row of icons. It had to be there, had to, even without a cloud connection…
"Not like you can connect to the City grid with it, but the Resistance found it in a Citadel tech lab alongside Cass’s phone, so… figured you’d want it back," Miranda explained. "Anyway, our safehouse isn’t too far away now, so… uh. Penelope?"
The Jones-Smith family. Marcy and Hollister. Gus Zero. Her father…
That’s what Penelope loved the most about the TroubleSolver gatherings, after all. A time when all her friends could get together, catch up, and maybe eat nachos. She’d set out a platter of them, in fact… visible in the background of the photo. The last photo she had of her friends and family, before the shootout that ruined everything…
Couldn’t take another step, not yet. This was a cry which needed to be wrung out of her system like wringing out a soaked towel. Fortunately, her comrades were understanding… and Quinn, recognizing the man in the photo and the significance of it, was there with a comforting word.
"You’ll see them again," he assured her. "All of them, one day."
Two who had missed the photo opportunity were waiting for her at the end of the road, in the underground Resistance facility they now called home.
Vivi had been the first to make with the hugging; deep armfuls of hugs, smothering by nature. Even Cass broke her cool-girl image to offer a quick hug to an old friend. (Neither of them hugged Quinn, which was for the best, given how uncomfortable he was around these lovely new strangers.)
Two who had made the photo opportunity, however, weren’t… quite what Penelope was expecting to see.
Dave looked… well, he looked simply awful. Like he’d been dragged back and forth over the coals for sleepless years. And Kelsey, everything was wrong there; her cute green hair had gone shock white, her eyes were perpetually dancing with nervous tension, and if she wasn’t actually malnourished she wasn’t too far on the other side of it.
"Okay, let’s make introductions simple," Miranda suggested. "Penelope, this is Dave Smith and Kelsey Jones. Of the Citadel. He’s an army defector, she’s a Builder. And this is…"
Different, certainly. Far more reserved than the City original, not nearly as huggy. She expressed herself with a reserved little nod of respect… and a kind word, from an analog speaker grill on a box at her waist.
"Good day to you, Miss Yates," she spoke without moving her lips. "And welcome to TroubleSolver headquarters. I hope we have properly carried on that name in your absence."
All of them, so different. Even the ones from her City had gone through their own versions of hell, from the look of it. And yet… they were TroubleSolvers, weren’t they? The mantle had a meaning, even here in the Citadel…
Normally, she’d find the strange-yet-familiar nature of these new TroubleSolvers, well, troubling. But today, they felt right. They felt like the TroubleSolvers the Citadel both needed and deserved, to paraphrase.
"Oh, and he’s Quinn," Miranda added, in afterthought.
"I’m fine with not being important at the moment," he added. "I’m just Penelope’s boyfriend."
Which immediately made him the most important man in the room, given Penelope’s history as a completely romance-free individual.
"So, uh, I’d like to talk about ending the war," she spoke up, to refocus the discussion. "I think I know how to do it, but there’s a lot of blanks left to fill in. How about we settle in for a chat about the state of the Citadel today? …over lunch. I always plan my battles best when there’s snacks around, and despite wading through a river of poop, I’ve got a heck of an appetite."
Whatever tensions existed between strangers and near-strangers faded, when the sandwiches were produced and everybody got talking.
As it was in the City, so it would be in the Citadel; food and friends were the magic formula for solving trouble. Despite the differing backgrounds, all of them could enjoy bread and meat and cheese. Particularly when prepared by Vivian, who apparently had handled these sort of social gatherings for the Resistance for years.
"Vivian?" Penelope asked, around a mouthful of bologna.
"A name I’ve adopted, to tell me apart from the Vivi you know," the Citadel version of Vivi(an) replied, while using sign to interpret the discussion for her counterpart. "I felt it flowed off the tongue—or rather, off the speaker—quite well that way. ‘Vivian and Cassandra.’ We sound like a delightfully matched pair of classical heroines that way, yes?"
Which made cool-girl Cass chow down on her food with a BIT more enthusiasm than required… to cover up an embarrassed reaction.
Penelope raised an eyebrow of surprise, but made no further comment. Only fair, if she didn’t want anybody to make a big deal out of the impromptu City/Citadel crossover OTP fanfic she had going on with Quinn, after all.
"How are you doing it, anyway?" she asked, instead. "Speaking through that speaker. I’m trying to understand the Radio more; Miranda said you might be the one to talk to about that. What’s your story, Vivian?"
Vivian considered how best to compact her life story down into an easily digestible format. Fortunately she’d already eaten beforehand, which kept her hands free to twist and gesture through the paces… she’d already told Vivi the tale, but only fair to include her in the re-iteration.
"It started when I was eight years old," she explained. "I’d been brought to the Citadel at a young age, pulled away from my mother and brother back on Earth. Here… I was considered next to useless. Deaf and mute meant I wouldn’t be useful for the war effort, and would be completely worthless for breeding purposes. I was given shelter in an orphanage for the mentally challenged, where we were immediately put to work making shell casings. Those days were… cruel…"
Now, Cassandra moved her chair closer, to rest a hand on Vivian’s shoulder. Smiles were exchanged, to give her enough strength to continue the story.
"…when I was eight, they realized my thoughts were sounding through nearby radio speakers. I was somehow overriding the signal of the Radio," Vivian continued. "Also… I began to hear through those same speakers. Finally, I could speak and hear, using the Radio as my conduit. But this didn’t exactly improve my situation… Citadel scientists began experimenting on me immediately. The only reason I’m here now is because my adoptive father Gustav rescued me, at the same time he was escaping from that lab. I’ve been with the Resistance ever since… even if I’ve left their doctrines behind, in favor of Cassandra’s TroubleSolvers."
"So… you’re an oracle of the Radio," Penelope understood, trying to fit this into her mental jigsaw puzzle of the Citadel. "Have you ever met the Radio? Personally."
"I’m… not sure I understand. The Radio is a state-sponsored broadcast network, not a person…"
"But it actually IS a person, yeah? It’s always the same voice, the guy with the slightly British accent, running his mouth off twenty-four-seven. Sure, there’s interviews and commercials and stuff, but they’re always introduced by the same announcer. I’m right about this, right? Same guy, for years? You don’t think that’s weird…?"
"I’ve never given it thought. That’s simply how it’s always been."
"Well, where does that guy broadcast from?"
"The Radio Station," Vivian spoke. "In one of the older wards, near the Bulwark. The Resistance has tried to take the station by force in the past, but it’s heavily guarded, of course…"
"’Heavily guarded’ is sort of the default state of affairs around here, so yeah, not surprised. Okay. So, for my next question… does anybody here know how the Builders are made?"
Which caused Kelsey to choke on her lemonade.
"M-M-M-mmmmh," she sputtered, the cup falling to her lap, wetting the civilian clothes they’d bought for her. "Ma. Ma. Madman. Madman…"
Dave Smith was quick to retrieve the cup, setting the empty aside. He also pulled napkins, to help clean up the spill.
"There’s an entity of some sort deep beneath the Bulwark," he explained, in measured and even tones. "They call it the Madman. People directly exposed to it become his Builders."
"Must hide must build make strong walls keep them out must hide," Kelsey continued to mumble. "Buried deep, can’t be touched, can’t be found, build the walls, dig the trenches, raise the turrets, keep them out, keep them out… p, please…"
"Um. Sorry, Kelsey, but I need to know more…" Penelope spoke, not enjoying the sight of someone who so closely resembled her friend in pain. "Just one more thing. If I wanted to meet this Madman… how would I find him?"
Dave paused in his cleanup, as the realization hit him.
"There’s a maze of tunnels, stairwells, and closed down wings beneath the Bulwark. You’d need a map," he said. "And… I can draw that map for you. It’s… this spiraling shape, going down to the heart of the Citadel… I’ve got it memorized. Yeah. I can make you the map. Uh, but obviously, you probably don’t want to sit down for a chat with the Madman…"
"I’m not saying I’m looking forward to it, but… I think… yeah. I kinda want to sit down for a chat with the Madman. That’s the only way to make this work. But hey, a map! Y’know, my own Dave Smith was something of a map-maker, too…"
A mild hand was raised, in question.
"You explained… about half of your grand master plan to me last night, but it’s still missing the back half," Quinn Qureshi suggested. "That’s what you’re trying to fill in now, right?"
"So… is it filled in yet? Can we please get some solid details now on how you’re going to end the war that’s murdering my people?"
Which was quite fair, really. She’d dragged him along quite a ways with nothing but a promise and a wish… Vivian had left her father on a similar promise, and Dave and Kelsey had fled from the relative safety of the Citadel itself in favor of an outlaw existence in hopes of finding something better. If they were all looking to Penelope to make this mess work, well… she had to step up.
After finishing her sandwich, she decided to rise to her feet. Felt better to be standing when laying down the plan, just like her father used to do.
"Do all of you guys know about the dream yet?" she asked. "If not this might take some time…"
"It seems ‘Cassandra’ told them everything before I got here," Miranda Walker filled in. "I would’ve suggested holding back the details to avoid potentially losing allied support, but it seems they’re on board with the notion that the Citadel’s a dream."
("A nightmare," Kelsey corrected quietly.)
"And… you’re all fine with that?" Penelope asked, to make sure before proceeding forward.
Nervous glances were swapped back and forth, across the makeshift lunch table.
"It’s not exactly fun to think about, but it does explain a lot," Dave said, speaking for the group. "But at this point I think we’d rather focus on not dying. That seems more important than an existential crisis."
"Okay. Good attitude, Dave, thanks," Penelope agreed, with a nod. "So! In a dream, belief shapes reality. What the people of the Citadel believe becomes what is. Quinn and I did some research, and figured out that because the Citadel doesn’t really believe the war can be won… it can’t be won. It’s a perpetual stalemate; nothing ever changes. We need to upset that balance… well, okay, no, the metaphor’s more that we need to bring in a new balance. A new idea, which we have to… hmm, how to put this…"
"We need to convince the Citadel to actually win the war," Quinn summarized. "And… to do that you needed to know more about the Radio and the Builders, you told me. I don’t entirely see how they relate, but…"
"Oh, they’re the Citadel’s aspects! Well, aspects and oracles. I think Builders are actually oracles."
"And… you’ve lost me again."
"Okay, look: every one of these dream worlds is defined by its aspects," Penelope explained, digging in deeper. "Living ideas that represent viewpoints about the dream itself. Internal psychological problems of the dreamer, maybe. For the City of Angles, that means Bedlam, Echo, and Lucid… me. I’m Lucid, or at least a human iteration of her. These aspects often have ‘oracles,’ for lack of a better word, people that they’ve connected deeply to the dream itself. In my world, Kelsey’s an oracle of Bedlam, and that lets her understand the chaos of our world while becoming one with it. Here… Kelsey’s a Builder, an oracle of the Madman, which lets her reshape the dream to build up defenses around it."
"Fear builds strong walls," Kelsey recited, from memory.
"So if the goal is to convince the Citadel that the war can be won—and then, y’know, actually win it—we need to deal directly with the aspects. They have to be brought around to a new way of thinking. That means we need to deal with the Enemy, the Radio, and the Madman…"
Now, Penelope pushed aside the refuse of her lunch, to flip the cheap paper plate over and start drawing on the back.
"First we need to talk with the Radio," she explained, jotting down RADIO on the plate, first item of a To-Do list. "Convince it to convince the people that the war can be won. Without that, the rest of this won’t work. …I’m thinking Vivian is the key; she’s got a connection with it, as an oracle of the Radio. That’ll mean breaking into the Radio Station, which is tough to do on short notice, but… with a Builder and the combined cleverness of our little gang, I think we can do it."
"Sure, let’s gloss over a hell of a lot of unknowns and variables and just say we can do it," Quinn muttered.
"Hey, it beats the alternative of ‘we can’t do it,’ doesn’t it? Assume victory until you’re defeated! Next…"
She scratched out the word MADMAN.
"This one I’m going to have to do myself," Penelope said. "The more I look at the Citadel, the more I realize it’s not defined by the Enemy as much as it’s defined by the Madman. He’s still fighting this war in his mind, over and over, while hiding away in his little hole. If the Radio informs the people’s minds, the Madman holds their hearts. Someone’s got to convince him that the war needs to end, that it can end. …if normal people would go crazy just looking at him, well… this has to be my job. I’m already a ‘Builder’ for my own City; I can put my will against his…"
"Assuming he doesn’t melt your brain," Quinn noted.
"Let’s try to stay positive here and assume he doesn’t melt my brain. May I continue?"
"By all means."
The final word on the list was, of course, ENEMY.
"Lastly… kicking the Enemy’s ass," Penelope said, stepping back from the plate. "It has to be done by an outside force; the Commander actually was right about that. Someone new has to step up and challenge the Enemy, in ways it’s never been challenged before. Guns won’t do the job. The Enemy either needs to be convinced to leave the Citadel alone… or be cowed into submission."
Miranda studied the paper plate list, frowning.
"So… your grand plan is to simultaneously go after three incredibly high-value targets, each with their own heavy defenses, and… talk them into playing nice?" she asked.
"You’ve seen me do it before, haven’t you? It’s difficult, but possible. …look. Guys. I know you’re skeptical. This is a war that’s been fought for a century with bullets and bombs, the most powerful tools humanity has on offer, and nothing’s worked. Compared to that, using words feels… foolish. Ridiculous. I get that. But words are what we need right now. The right word in the right ear at the right time can change the world. …if any of you don’t want to be involved, that’s okay. I’ll find another way. I always do."
With the plan laid out, Penelope waited for the first person to walk away from the table.
It was admittedly dodgy as hell, like all TroubleSolver plans… relying on improvisation and guesswork. But it still felt right, in her mind. Unity of the aspects… she’d managed that for her City, pulling it back from the brink of nightmare over and over again. Unity would save the Citadel as well. Would work, had to work…
The one who went into this mess with the most skepticism, the one who turned her away when she wanted to sit by him in the lunchroom, spoke immediately.
"I’m game," Quinn Qureshi said. "If life’s a dream, I guess dream logic has to hold sway. As good of a kind of logic as any. If reality is shaped by belief, and we believe hard enough in this insane plan, then we’ll be proven the sane ones in the end. Anybody here actually not interested in helping save the world?"
Instead of running for their lives… the Citadel TroubleSolvers stood their ground. Or sat in their chairs, as applicable. Even Miranda, who wore a perpetual leer of disapproval at the way her life was going—doubly so, today—chose to passively accept the situation.
"Good. We’re in agreement, then," he concluded. "One question before we all jump off a cliff together. Who’s going to actually defeat the Enemy…? If it’s not Vivian, and not you. Please don’t say it’s me."
For this, Penelope didn’t mind being a little coy and mysterious. SO much more fun than being clear.
"Actually, I’m calling in some friends of mine," she said. "They’re already on their way; I can feel them getting closer. And in terms of playground pecking order… I’d say my monsters can beat up your monsters."
Tensions started running high at the bleed facilities, on learning that the freaky doctor who made these machines was dead. Soon, the portals would collapse—but how soon, exactly, was a data point nobody had a clear fix on. "Soon," was the best they could offer.
Day after day, Leftenant Darl sent fresh truckloads of Angle conscripts through the bleed. Those truckloads had been increasing in frequency since news came through about the breakdown. They were taking whatever they could before the time came to up stakes and head home. An ugly, messy business… both for folks trying to defend their Citadel, and the poor bastards drafted into defending their Citadel.
So far, he hadn’t had to shoot anyone. A few folks broke free of the truck and tried to make a run for it, but he’d ordered his troops to use non-lethal takedowns if at all possible. Not only to keep the army ranks swelling, but, well… he understood why they were running. Any sane person would run, when told to either fight (and die) or die (because you didn’t want to fight). In a way, Darl was thankful that the bleed would be closing soon and putting an end to this thankless task he’d been given…
As the early evening sun began to set, the next truck of the day rolled up with a new gaggle of Angles in the back. Some had been chained down, the more problematic ones. Others were too stunned to protest.
It wasn’t Darl’s job to calm their nerves, but he felt he had to say something. Some promise that they would be kept well, given the best training, and if they obeyed they’d come out of this alive… so basically, no promise whatsoever.
Today he’d actually written down a few words of comfort and wisdom. He hadn’t the nerve to actually read it yet, but this being the last truck of the day (hopefully) it seemed it was now or never. He joined his armed guards, approaching the truck and raising a megaphone to get their attention.
"Good people of the City of Angles," he started, "What the hell is that—?"
The first part was indeed part of his prepared speech. The second was improvisational speaking, brought on by the sudden spiral of light and color that wormed its way around a nearby building and plunged at them like a tsunami of flickering imagery.
There wasn’t time to run and hide. No time to scream, really, before it was on them. It flowed in and around and between them like liquid light and laughter… yes, laughter. A mad and merry laughter of a deranged child…
The megaphone vanished from his hands.
"Silence is golden," a young girl with white hair suggested. "There’s nothing you could have said to comfort them, anyway."
// no time for that! // onward! the swirl of color with a thousand smiles called out. // onward to the bleed // the blood-slick rip // towards war // and chaos // and victory! // excuse us coming through pardon the interruption as you were good little tin soldier.
Long after the pair vanished from sight, the colored spots remained in Darl’s eyes, dancing merrily.
Night fell on the streets high above. Not that anyone hiding out in the TroubleSolver 2.0 Underground Lair Action Playset™ could tell, given a lack of windows. Clocks were all they had to go by to indicate how the outside world was carrying on.
Many in the group had gone to bed already, to rest and recharge for tomorrow’s combined assault on the very heart and soul of the Citadel. Cass and Vivian retreated to their room, as did Dave and Kelsey. Original Recipe Vivi had fallen asleep in the middle of reading a good book, out in the main room. Miranda was… somewhere, presumably loading and unloading and cleaning guns, determined to have a fallback option if Penelope’s ideals faltered.
The ringleader, the one who’d encouraged them all to come along on her merry and extremely foolhardy little quest… she couldn’t sleep. Shouldn’t sleep, really. Part of the plan hinged off her having a very specific sleep pattern, after all.
Fortunately for her, one remained who was both awake and willing to socialize.
"Oh. Hey," Penelope greeted, glancing up from… nothing, really. She wasn’t doing anything, except sitting there and thinking.
"Pulling an all-nighter in the library has wrecked my biorhythms," Quinn explained. "I give up on sleep. Besides, my role in this is comparatively minor. …still, glad you trust me with the part you’re trusting me with. I appreciate it."
"I trust you, it’s cool."
"You probably shouldn’t, considering you didn’t even know my name until… what is it now, a day? Three days? I can’t even tell anymore."
"No, I probably shouldn’t. But I trust you, anyway. That’s kinda who I am," Penelope said, with a tired smile. "And I’ve gotten to know you well enough that I figure that’s kinda who you are, too. Underneath all the cynicism and bemoaning of your doom, I mean."
"Longer you get to know me, more you’ll get used to the whole bemoaning thing."
…which left Penelope sinking a bit into herself, at the thought.
"Quinn… if this goes badly… I’m not GOING to have any longer to get to know you," she said, the thought having bounced around her mind in silence much of the night. "Even if it goes well, that could be it for us. I’ll be heading back to my City to start a very, very long journey… you’ll want to stay here and help your Citadel. So either way, I think we’re not exactly gonna be going on dates very often in the future."
"Yeah… I know. I’ve been pondering that, too. C’est la guerre, as they say."
"Uh. Is that Spanish?"
"I think it’s French. What they speak in ‘Frence,’ or wherever. It means ‘That’s the war.’ Like I said, casual relationships are the best someone like me can hope for. Maybe it’s best we don’t actually have anything serious going on between us. Could be for the best that we didn’t have enough time. It’ll hurt less, this way."
"That’s not fair. It shouldn’t have to be that way…"
"It is what it is, Penelope."
Which led to the other thought that had been banging around inside her head.
"If this is seriously our last night together…" she started, "Do you… uh… y’know, do you want to…?"
And… she trailed off, unable to even complete the question.
To his credit, Quinn considered it in seriousness, before giving his response.
"Do you really want our awkward and uncomfortably virgin fumblings to be your last memory before dying?" he asked.
"…well, when you put it THAT way…"
"Besides, I don’t feel that’d be… what’s the word that’s appropriate here… yes. Appropriate for whatever the hell it is we have. …instead, how about this…"
With quick hands, he retrieved a flat wedge of glass and metal from the nearby table.
"A picture of us together, using your impossible superscience space phone," he suggested, passing it over to her.
"…you want to take a selfie with me?" Penelope asked, confused. "Seriously?"
"Seriously. I remember how you felt, looking at that photo of your father and friends. Photographs are memories that never fade, even if the people within them do. I’d be honored to take a photo with you, Penelope."
A surprisingly sentimental view, from the cynical soldier. But… it made sense to Penelope. The Citadel hadn’t cheapened the idea of a photograph with an endless array of digital cameras spewing an endless array of lunch Instagrams. Sometimes, a family photo album would be all you’d have to remember someone by…
So she nestled in nice and close with him, the two of them offering the camera a pleasant smile. Holding the phone at arm’s length, she steadied the shot, making sure everything was just right before tapping the little virtual button.
Then they took a shot of themselves kissing.
Then they took a shot of themselves cross-eyed and sticking their tongues out. There was a proper protocol to follow when doing the photo-booth routine, even without a booth to take the photos in.
When it was over… she held the phone out, for him to take.
"I can’t exactly print out copies or store ’em in the cloud for you, so… here. You can have my phone itself," she suggested. "Charger’s on the table, the lock code is 2323. Tap any icon to launch it; that one there in the lower left is the photo album. Oh, and don’t try to beat my Flappy Bird score."
Quinn took the surprisingly heavy object with a delicate grip, afraid he’d break it.
"You sure about this?" he asked. "I know how much this contraption means to you…"
"Then think of it as you holding onto it for safekeeping. I’ll be back for it, one way or another. Deal?"
Experimentally, he swiped a finger across the screen as he’d seen Penelope doing. Satisfied that he could figure out the rest, he slipped it into his pants pocket.
"In absence of a handy heart-shaped locket and an extremely tiny sepia-toned photograph, I’ll take it," Quinn agreed. "Thank you, Penelope. Now… as much as I’d love to stay up all night with you, I’d rather not face my part in this tomorrow at anything less than 100% alertness. Good evening to you."
An oddly formal way to end the encounter… but it felt right, to her. A strange mix of dignity and depreciation, much like Quinn himself.
Parting with her phone, the lifeline of her digital life… that took something out of her. It was like saying goodbye to a part of her old self, with something bigger on the horizon. Telling him she’d be back for it was a fine way to instill hope in the boy, but… truthfully, Penelope wasn’t sure if she would be back for it. Wasn’t sure if she’d survive this final conflict, or if she did survive, how much it would change her…
In silent wonder, Penelope waited for the hours to tick away. When four in the morning rolled around, she retired to a nearby cot, to pick up a few hours before curfew ended and the Citadel’s day begun. The timing was key; she had to be ready to launch the first step of the plan at precisely the right moment.
After that… events would be set in motion which would result in victory for the Citadel, or complete failure for everyone. Time would tell which fate lie in store.
Was having his office on the top floor of the towering Bulwark a security risk? Yes and no. Yes, in that everybody in the Citadel knew exactly where to find Commander Gregory Yates; you could see him from just about anywhere, after all. No, in that the wide glass windows of his office were resistant to any sniper shot or explosive force known to man and Enemy alike.
Besides, his skyward command post served dual purpose. It put him in indirect touch with his people, surveying the entirety of the Citadel at a glance. The people could feel confident knowing that their leader was watching them, all the time. Always. Just in case they got any funny ideas.
Truthfully though, if anybody DID set up a telescope to peek in, they’d probably be bored out of their minds. This office existed as a container for Gregory’s boredom, signing papers and shuffling news reports around. Or, as he was doing that particular morning, solving crossword puzzles.
As he sat alone in his fortified panopticon, tapping a pencil eraser against the pages of the daily paper, he furrowed his brow at a particularly tough set of empty boxes. It seemed like a straightforward one, none of the puns or wordplay the state paper was famous for. (He’d actually used the crossword to trap dissidents, once or twice. Can’t be too careful with clever bastards.)
After a minute’s consideration… he decided to reach for the intercom on his desk.
"Dolores, what’s a five-letter word which means ‘clear perception or understanding’?"
If she had an answer for him, it was cut off when the wire sliced clean in half just beyond the boundaries of his office. The Commander’s eyes blinked involuntarily as the morning light of the sun winked out of existence behind him…
Turning slowly in his wheeled chair, he observed a rough-hewn brick wall where his glorious view of the Citadel once was.
He didn’t have to wait long for answers, as the door to his office flung itself open.
The two supplicants entering his private office didn’t seem very supplicative. One of them, the former head of the Department of Safety, was carrying a shotgun; enough of a clear and present danger that the Commander opted not to move any sudden moves. As for the other… she seemed a bit… sleepy, as if roused from bed ten seconds previous.
"Penny," he greeted. "And Miss Walker. Good to see you both again."
"I’m obliged to suggest you don’t move, although I’d love an excuse to blow you through that wall," the woman with the shotgun pointed squarely at him explained.
"I’m content to sit and chat for now," Yates denied. He turned slightly in his chair, to face the ringleader. "For instance, let’s talk about how my office is suddenly underground. Penny? Care to explain?"
"You don’t get to call me Penny, you impostor," she spoke, with bitterness behind every word. "You don’t even get to call me Penelope. You want a name for me? Call me Lucid. …you know that name, don’t you. You’ve been researching my City’s aspects; know your enemy, and all. I’ve been shuffling entire blocks in my City for years, so shuffling your office somewhere private and out of the way was totally easymode."
Watching the understanding settle into the Commander’s mind was actually quite enjoyable to her. Particularly when he gradually solidified a nice, big frown.
"So… it was you who closed the bleed. You were the threat all along, not your father," he realized. "Hmph. Honestly, I blame myself for this error of oversight. Sloppy work, just damn sloppy. Well, now what? I’m a dead man, I presume?"
Penelope pulled a nice, thick line off a roll of duct tape she’d brought along for the fun.
"You’re our prisoner, at the moment," she explained… while taping him down to his chair, with Walker keeping the weapon level to ensure he stayed put. "We wanted to make sure you were… open and receptive to negotiation. It’s very hard to schedule an appointment with the Commander, see."
Gregory patiently waited to be immobilized. Why not? Even knowing the truth of Penelope, he felt little threat from her. His entire office going missing would easily put the Bulwark on high alert, and if they didn’t intend to kill him, all he had to do was stall until he was rescued. Simple enough.
"If you have a complaint with how I do things, I’d be more than happy to hear your concerns," he suggested.
"You know it wouldn’t work, right? Supplanting your army with Angles, so you can work around the stalemate problem. Belief shapes reality, yes, but the Citadel’s poisonous. One day on the frontlines and the Enemy would have your new recruits ready to buy into the futility of war…"
"Bright one, aren’t you. Jack Hayes taught me all about the dream and the way it’s shaped… and I disagree with your conclusion. It’s all about burst damage," he countered. "A massive single-day push on the frontlines with every one of the Angles I’m training for war will be enough to shove the Enemy back. It’ll tip the stalemate’s scales long before they lose heart; once we have the advantage, we can use sheer momentum to run the Enemy down."
"You don’t know that’s how it’ll go. You’re betting it all on a stupid theory!"
"And what are you doing, exactly?" he asked. "I’m guessing you have your own stupid theories to bet on. I mean, if you wanted me dead I’d be dead, yes? That suggests to me you’re planning something. Knowing your ‘TroubleSolvers,’ it’s no doubt a grand and inadvisable design. So, spill. What’s on your mind, Penelope?"
Stepping back, Penelope nodded to Miranda to lower the gun. It wasn’t needed, now.
"I want one thing, and one thing only," she said. "I want everybody to go home. My people return to their City, your people return to yours. That’s it. And in return… I’m going to end your war. It’s win-win for both of us."
"Really. You are going to end my war? One little girl. And you call my theory stupid…"
"That’s what you wanted me to do, wasn’t it? You told me that the only thing you cared about, the only thing, was saving your Citadel. …in fact, you even said that if one day I put a knife to your throat, that’d be just dandy, as long as you put it to theirs first…"
She leaned in nice and close to the bound Commander, to make sure he could see the burning-red rage in her eyes. …and then leaned away, cooling herself.
"I could kill you… but I’ve got more important problems than you," Penelope explained. "Here’s what I’m going to do instead. My friend Miss Walker here is going to make sure you don’t try anything funny, while you sit here patiently listening to the Radio, enjoying your own private victory party as you hear about how I saved your Citadel. Then… we let you go. In thanks for our assistance, you’ll pardon all my friends for their crimes of ‘treason.’ Oh, and you immediately issue the order to evacuate all Angles from your world."
Unswerving confidence, in those young eyes. The same he saw in the mirror, during the heady days of his own youth…
Which left the Commander wondering if she could actually do it.
On the surface, it was complete nonsense. But he had grown used to thinking of his counterpart’s daughter as a victim of backward thinking, some ordinary girl caught up in the lunacy of Gregory Yates, fishmonger and gangster. If that was still the case, her proposal would obviously be ridiculous. …but if she was an aspect of the City of Angles, like Bedlam and Echo…
There was the small matter of his office being relocated, for starters. Even if she was lying, if she got someone else to do that for her, it still meant she commanded forces beyond reckoning. The Commander was generally in favor of forces beyond reckoning, when they were pledged to his causes.
But if he accepted this deal… it’d mean admitting failure. That he had to stumble into the solution to his lifetime struggle, or worse, it stumbled onto him. It stumbled around him and right into battle, not involving him in the slightest. Was it really acceptable, taking years of planning and a life devoted to victory, and letting it all sit idly by while life passed him by…?
"Agreed," he said, without needing to think much farther than that. Of course it was acceptable. Victory was victory. "But because I believe in having a complete picture of any scenario… what exactly will you do if I defy you and keep your citizens under my control?"
…the teenager’s smile grew cruel.
"I won’t kill you," she said, simply.
The rest was implied.
"Reasonable," Gregory agreed. "Go to work."
Only after she shut the doors behind her did he address the woman with the gun.
"You could and probably should blow my head off right now, before she gets back," he suggested.
"This time… I’m willing to try playing it her way," Miranda spoke, keeping the weapon perfectly steady. "Instead of trying to do it my way and realizing in hindsight that she had the better idea. How about we both sit here and wait to see if she can make this work? If that flops… then we can talk about killing each other to death."
"Hmm. Acceptable. Turn up the Radio on my desk a bit; I’m curious to see where this is going as well."
The last day of the war remained business as usual for all within the Citadel, until the moment everything changed. Few ever learned the whole truth of it, not even those who were present and accounted for at all three locales where victory was achieved… the Radio Station, the Bulwark, and the frontlines.
For example, Leftenant Chen of Radio Station Security saw everything unfold before his very eyes, except for the most important part of it. What he did see made little sense. Then again, little about the core of the Radio Station made sense.
Unlike other structures, which were named in dedication to some fallen hero or noble leader, the Radio Station was simply "The Radio Station." A brick obelisk squatting in one of the oldest established wards of the Citadel, it hadn’t changed shape since its origins in the twenties: a slab with one enormous metal antenna rising from its center, with that needle into the sky pumping propaganda out all day, every day.
It resembled any radio broadcast center back on Earth; even had a full compliment of staff, consisting of audio engineers, researchers, writers, musicians, and more. Offices were packed with secretaries and executives and everything else needed to operate a media empire. Since the earliest days, operations had expanded quite a bit; five different broadcast booths kept the system going, along with a few central switchboards to flip between them.
But there was always one booth that nobody dared enter. For lack of a better name, it was simply "Studio One," and it was completely off limits to all personnel who didn’t have high level clearance. The other studios were rarely used; Studio One was live every moment of every day…
Leftenant Chen asked all the obvious questions at first, until it was clear nobody wanted to give him the answers. "Who’s the announcer?" No answer. "How does he stay awake all day?" No answer. "Why’s he British? I thought only Americans got drafted here." No answer. "Has it really been the same person for years?" Uncomfortable lack of an answer and a suggestion that he stuff it and get back to work.
Soon, the apathy set in, and Chen no longer bothered caring why things were the way they were. As long as he watched his security monitors and shut his trap, he could get away with not standing toe-to-toe with the Enemy.
Only thing he had to worry about here was the Resistance, and the last time they made a play for the station was two years ago. He knew better than to appear to be inactive, though; the Bulwark demanded evidence of effectiveness, which meant drill after drill. Or, in Chen’s case, hassling unauthorized passers-by who came a bit TOO close to the station. Even if no legitimate threats had popped up lately, Chen needed to keep his security forces active. It also helped his media profile to be the noble defender of the Radio Station instead of an anonymous nobody sitting in a chair all day.
On V-Day, Chen was at his usual post doing his usual work: keeping an eye on seven different monitors at once, looking for anything out of the ordinary. A gaggle of armed guards were ready to leap to attention should Chen give the order, and he DID enjoy giving that order, even if it was rarely for legitimate reasons.
Around the time he was considering fudging his timecard to knock off for an early lunch, four red lights triggered simultaneously on his console.
Those lights could only mean one thing: the Voice of the Resistance was making a play for the Station.
He knew about the Voice. It was part of his training; in addition to typical security cameras, sensitive radio signal tracers had been placed around the Radio Station, to track the Voice if she ever dared to approach. Nobody knew how the Voice could override the Radio signal, but the upside of it was that she became very easy to track… provided she came within close enough proximity of a tracer.
Immediately on seeing that red light, Private Chen activated the recording devices attached to the tracers, and started flipping between camera views to try and find her. Tracers 2, 3, 7, and 10 had triggered, which meant an approach from the northwest…
"…why we have to move fast," the woman spoke, her voice masked in light static of a weak signal; she was trying to whisper, unaware they’d upgraded the tracers since the last time the Resistance tried this. "Richards and his team will sweep in from 56th street, to the north. Father, I want you and your team closing in from the south at the same time. We’ll delay the east and west teams, to split their forces. The paratroopers can come in after that to plant explosives on the antenna…"
Four teams? Paratroopers? Explosives?!
…wait, no. It could be a trick. Just saber-rattling; surely he’d be able to see an army that huge bearing down on him by now, right? If he panicked and it ended up being little more than a Resistance prank, Chen could get shot for incompetence. …but if he waited too long and it ended up being a full-scale siege, Chen could get shot for incompetence…
How would the Commander handle this?
With a show of force, naturally. Even if it was a prank, an overwhelming wave of military might to scare the pranksters off would at least keep the people confident in the Citadel’s responsiveness. And if he could capture the Voice…
Chen reached for his emergency walkie talkie, jamming down the red button.
"All security forces, mobilize!" he commanded, while flipping through camera feeds. "Possible Resistance attack incoming, from north, south, east, and west. All troops mobilize to… to…"
No signs of a huge Resistance army, not yet. But… there she was. The Voice, as seen on wanted posters, issuing orders to three other terrorists, under the view of a recently installed security camera.
"Squad one and two, mobilize to the alley between 56th and Liberation Avenue! Capture the Voice at all costs!" Chen called out. "Squad three and four, exit and surround the building to repel outside invaders. Move! MOVE!"
Chen waved for a private to take his observation post, as he fetched his hat and buttoned his military jacket. Had to look presentable, if he was going to lead the troops into glorious battle (while staying behind them)… or if he was going to capture the Voice. In fact, he made a note to grab a few reporters on his way out the door, just in case he was about to become the hero of the day. And if it did all go wrong, well, reporters in the line of fire get shot all the time, don’t they?
The frontline fighting on V-Day was particularly intense. Although "particularly intense" didn’t adequately express the living hell of bullets whizzing over Leftenant Davis’ head, the explosions rattling the ground around him, or the choking dust that settled into his freshly dug trench.
Some idiot higher up the food chain had insisted on this push, despite this part of the lines representing the strongest portion of the Enemy’s war machine. ‘They’re no doubt going to make a try for Camp Washington, to kill our new Angle recruits,’ was the reasoning. ‘If we don’t fortify and preemptively strike, they’ll have time to make their move.’
End result? He’d lost three privates before dawn. Good men, with families. Utterly ridiculous. Davis had recommended they dig in where they stood rather than advance and dig in, but with the influx of recruits from the City of Angles about to be promoted from training to infantry, the generals were getting boisterous. Careless. Typical…
The Leftenant had to scream to be heard over the din of war. Had to scream to keep his energy up, to avoid collapsing inside himself and simply never budging again…
"We need a resupply on the main machine guns here, and here!" he yelled at the private, pointing to spots on his dirt-covered map. "The Enemy bodies are piling up like goddamn sandbags out there, slowing them down. We need to keep up the pressure—"
"We don’t have any pressure to keep up, sir! Heavy ammo stocks were depleted an hour ago!"
"What? We should’ve had enough coming to last the whole day! What about mortars?"
"Running dry. Sir? Do we retreat, sir?"
Davis cursed everything that could possibly be cursed in this life, before giving his answer.
"We can’t," he said. "If we’re that badly off, supplies must’ve been rerouted to the next line back. I’ve seen that before; they’re leaving us here as a decoy, to buy time…"
"What? We’ve gotta fall back, then!"
"They need that time, Private," Davis said, adjusting his hat, and reaching for his rifle. "We go over the top. We fight. And maybe because of it, a few more people will live than die today. Do it for your family. Do it for your Citadel. Do it for your damn honor! EVERYBODY! Advance!"
Over the top. One of the worst phrases in the English language, as far as a soldier was concerned. But Davis grimaced through the nightmare of it all, grabbing onto what bravery he had left to keep his feet moving… climbing up the makeshift ladder, charging towards the indistinct shapes…
Indistinct grinning shapes. Black eyes, mad smiles.
The Enemy loved to go over the top. Living or dying were equally fine in their book; they relished in war, enjoying every moment of it. When Davis and his men came at them, they charged in return. Could’ve cut Davis down in gunfire, but no, it’d be so much more enjoyable to tear them apart hand to hand, wouldn’t it…? Bastards. Bastards, all of them. Best Davis could hope for was to cancel out their forces with his own, to keep the war going a little longer. Best he could hope for…
Light and color flashed before his eyes. Not the flash of muzzles and gunfire, no. It was more like… a tornado of scarves, living streaks of paint across the sky, laughter upon laughter of a lighter yet more terrifying sort than any laughter the Enemy’s dry throats could manage…
Davis instinctively hit the ground, as the tornado whirled around him, and crashed head on into the Enemy.
Black-eyed freaks were shredded on contact, twisted into strange shapes and pulled apart. Six of them were lifted from the ground and dismembered on the spot, a spray of red which curled upward rather than falling to earth… pooling in the air, as the strange girl-shaped thing ripped through their ranks, cackling all the while.
But one had evaded her notice. An Enemy in basic grey, lifting his rifle high, ready to drive the bayonet down into Davis’s back…
A bayonet which vanished.
Then his hands vanished.
The Enemy stared at the blank stumps of his arms in confusion, as a vision in white stood between him and Leftenant Davis.
"Unpleasant figments," she spoke, a soft whisper which made itself clear despite the chaos all around them. "You should not be. Therefore, you will not be."
The air popped slightly, as it filled the void where the Enemy once stood.
With a gently offered hand, the child assisted Leftenant Davis in rising to his feet.
All across the battlefield… she was offering help, easing soldiers from the ground, or supporting their weight as they limped. Identical girls in white and blue dresses, perfect copies of each other, like valkyries tending to fallen warriors. One by one… they fell back, towards the trenches. The Enemy did not follow, too busy dealing with the maelstrom of madness that was happily ruining their fun…
"Your battle is over, good sir," the child promised. "This is our battle, now. It’s time to go home. We’ll help you back to your base camps."
Davis left his fallen hat in the mud of the battlefield. Too shocked to bother retrieving it.
"Are… are you an angel?" he asked.
"Today? Perhaps I am," Echo spoke. "But you are not dead. You continue to exist, as you should. Come. Let’s leave this terrible place."
Davis vanished into the spoke, as did his men. Each led by their own personal angel in white.
The original angel in white stood at the forefront of the battle, patiently waiting for Bedlam to finish mopping up this particular squadron of Enemy forces. It took a few minutes, as Bedlam was easily distracted with the fine art of rearranging Enemy trenches to make death mazes for them to get lost within… her own personal Citadel variation on the Sideways. One by one she crushed them where they stood, but only after getting her satisfaction from the effort.
"We have no time to play, sister," Echo warned.
A miasma of light and laughter formed at her side.
// yeah yeah yeah okay. // oh hey // nice trick // neat idea // echoing yourself, she admitted.
"A way to protect my demi-mortal prime self. Besides… it made literal sense, given my name," Echo replied. "I’ll evaporate them once they’ve completed their escort tasks, to focus myself for the final battle. Have you determined the source of these husks yet?"
Bedlam formed a series of glowing arrows in the air, neon-bright and agonizing to the eyes.
// thataway // over there // lies the heart of darkness.
// best part? // bestest part?
// we’ve annoyed them.
// ohhh, we’ve annoyed them so MUCH…
Echo closed her eyes, spreading her senses across the hundreds of copies of herself escorting soldiers away from the battle. That, combined with a feel for the overall shape of the dream, was enough to confirm the truth.
"We may be able to disassemble some of their juggernaut, sister, but make no mistake… this is not a battle we can ultimately win by force," she warned. "We must continue to the very edge, and face the Enemy there… but if our sister-self and her allies fall, we shall fall as well. Keep the Enemy’s attention on us, defend yourself, and hold fast…"
// yessss // annoyance // frustration // so much hate // such a PERFECT hate // I wish to drink it and spit it in their stupid faces // laughing all the while…
"Focus, Bedlam. We must walk a fine line between defense and offense. Sustain yourself, until they are truly weak enough to push them all over the brink…"
Howling screams on the wind, as the Enemy closed in from both sides. Frontlines collapsing inward, to target the viral bodies that had infected their perfect little war.
Echo replicated herself a few dozen times, ready to meet them.
"We will hold," she repeated. "We WILL hold. Or be destroyed in the effort."
At the same time an imaginary Resistance army was assaulting the Radio Station and mysterious little girls were taking over the duties of war… a red armored van was rolling into a secured garage at the Bulwark.
Even with sympathetic Resistance contacts willing to forge the paperwork, this was risky. The Citadel would be on high alert any second now… with the Commander missing, the Radio Station arming for battle, and the frontlines being twisted around by outside forces. But this was the safest way to get as close as possible to the Madman before needing to unleash some showy display of extremely dangerous power.
Dave explained why, one night previous.
"Seismographs," he’d answered. "That’s why you can’t just tunnel into the facility. They’ve had problems with Builders trying to escape by, well, building their way out. Any underground structural changes will set off all sorts of alarms down there, and the farther away you are from the spiral when it happens, the more armed opposition you’ll be facing on the way down. …the easiest way to get inside is to be a Builder, really."
Which meant Penelope had to be a Builder. Quinn would be her handler. And Cass would drive them all there.
Penelope sat in the back, wearing the traditional straitjacket and leash of the Builder. They’d added a cosmetic I.V. port, much like the one Kelsey had implanted in her arm; the jacket itself was fixed for quick-release, should it come to that.
Despite knowing that it was all a ruse, the confinement made her brain itchy. Even if she wasn’t helpless, she felt helpless all the same, leashed and collared and led around like this. What sociopath invented the Builder protocols, anyway? How cruel and inhumane were they at heart?
Quinn didn’t seem entirely comfortable in his role, either. His uniform fit nicely compared to Penelope’s jacket, since he was quite used to uniforms… but holding the leash and pretending to be yet another worker bee in a very angry hive, headed towards absolute danger… that got to him.
"Maybe we should’ve taken our chances and tunneled in," he said for the umpteenth time.
"The more I build, the more exhausting it gets. Remember how zonked I was the morning we escaped? I don’t want to cut loose until I absolutely have to; I need to conserve everything I’ve got for facing the Madman."
"Maybe we should’ve just waited until we could come up with a better plan. A few days, a few weeks…"
"Please don’t make me second-guess myself more than I already am," Penelope pleaded. "I need every ounce of confidence I can muster if I’m gonna do this."
They rocked gently in their seats, as the van came to a halt. Moments from now, the doors would open… and either Cass’s forgeries would pass muster, or they’d be gunned down like fish in a barrel. Moments. Just moments…
Light from the garage beyond spilled in, as Cass opened the back doors. Penelope… stared straight ahead. Doped up and submissive, just as Kelsey had taught her. No matter what happened she had to play her role…
There were men with guns. But they weren’t aiming them right at the "Builder" and her handler.
"Good timing," the guard said. "Just got the word that we’re going into lockdown. Commander’s gone missing."
"Missing?" Quinn asked, doing his best to act surprised.
"I wouldn’t be shocked if it’s another one of his damn loyalty tests, or a drill of some kind," the guard said… offering a hand, to help Quinn out. "C’mon, let’s get your Builder to her cell ASAP. Last thing we need is one of those freaks putting everybody on edge when we’re already on edge. How’d your build go?"
"Not bad. Just some renovations to an ammo depot," Quinn explained, recalling the backstory they’d scribbled into those falsified documents. "Milk run, really."
…which left him glancing around, trying to figure out where to go next without looking like he needed to figure out where to go next.
Penelope shifted her weight a bit, to tug her leash to the left.
"Remain strong," Quinn nodded to the guard, before ‘leading’ his charge off to the left… towards the elevator that would take them down into the heart of the Citadel.
Despite being out of earshot of the rapidly mobilizing guards of the garage, they didn’t break character once. Penelope stared at her shoes, or let her gaze wander to nothing of interest whatsoever. Quinn did his best to look grumpy yet bored… the default expression of a handler, according to Dave Smith. No way they’d risk being spotted on a camera or picked up by a microphone, not even for the tiniest of nods to restore each other’s faith in this mission and in each other…
A soft ding sounded, as they emerged into the Builder Facility.
Next checkpoint would be the processing desk, where work assignments were logged. They’d piggybacked off an actual work assignment, one scheduled to roll back into the garage one hour later; even if the papers were checked, it’d all clear nicely. Quinn passed his clipboard over to the clerk, a man who didn’t even bother looking up when holding out his hand for the papers.
"You hear about the lockdown?" Quinn asked, trying to make smalltalk.
"Probably a drill," the clerk replied, comparing the orders against an open folder on his desk. "If it was an Enemy attack or something there’d be mortar fire. Looks like this all checks out, so you’re good to g—"
A metallic clank echoed through the facility antechamber.
…the clerk, the Builder, and her handler all instinctively peered at the source of the noise… a fake metallic I.V. port, having fallen off the Builder’s arm, revealing ordinary skin and a bit of sticky glue. It wobbled a bit on the floor before coming to a halt.
For the briefest of moments, the clerk had no idea what to do.
Then his hand reached for the shiny red EMERGENCY button.
So, his chair became ten chairs stacked in a perfect pyramid, slamming him into the ceiling tiles.
Penelope pulled the quick-release, shrugging out of her jacket immediately—and threw open two broom closets behind the elevator guards. An endless array of mops and buckets toppled out, burying them instantly.
"Basement!" she called to Quinn, as the two broke into a full sprint.
"Rationing will be altered by month’s end, to accommodate our new allies from the City of Angles," the Radio continued, droning on from speakers on every street corner around the Radio Station. "While this is a sacrifice, it is a sacrifice we must make. The City of Angles represents our next major military initiative, and their inclusion into the Citadel’s armed forces must be compensated for through allocation of resources. In an effort to promote understanding, however, chocolate rations will be increased by five grams per month…"
Like all good citizens, Chen filtered out the perpetual narrator’s voice. It was background radiation, after all. He had bigger concerns right now… namely, his new prizes.
It was all hot air, after all. No Resistance army materialized on his streets. Oh, he still sent guards out to interrogate people walking around out there; annoying thing about the rebels were their lack of uniforms, meaning any civilian could be one of them. Rounding up everybody near the Radio Station seemed the safe bet, even if it would likely be a catch-and-release kind of thing.
Chen couldn’t make any sense of it. He’d captured a grand total of two Resistance fighters with relative ease: one nobody, and the Voice herself. That’s all that was actually out there. What an incredible waste of time, for both himself and the Resistance…
There he was, standing outside his Radio Station with a fully armed complement of soldiers, to deal with two captives on their knees. Flashy, but considering the incredibly high value of the Voice and the incredibly low actual threat they represented, he didn’t mind overdoing it. Great for the journalists he’d dragged out of their offices to write about.
The Leftenant paced in front of the captive woman and the nobody, happily gloating a bit. Journos took photographs; quite nice ones, considering the anger in Vivi Jørgensen’s eyes. There was a promotion in store for him, once that image got out.
"I don’t know what you were trying to accomplish here," Chen spoke, raising his voice to be heard over the Radio’s morning news report. "But whatever it was, it’s over now. You’re going back to jail, Little Miss Voice. They’re going to trot you out in front of crowds to be mocked and humiliated all over again. Tell me, how does that make you feel?"
And she had no reply. The portable radio around her neck was dead silent.
"I wish I could claim full credit for this glorious capture of the Citadel’s second most wanted terrorist, but clearly she’s lost her mind!" he spoke to the journalists. "And for all her bluster and speechmaking, she’s left wordless. How ironic! How… … what? What are you doing?"
This, because the Voice had begun waggling her fingers at him.
Strange. Chen knew she was deaf, knew she used sign language, but… why use it now? She was wearing a personal speaker, wasn’t she?
Her companion did the translating.
"She’s saying… you’re an idiot if you think she’s actually the Voice of the Resistance," Dave Smith spoke, reasonably sure of the interpretation. "She’s saying that the Resistance had analyzed your personality profile and determined you’d overreact to a minor breach, also, uh… something about revenge for kidnapping and torturing her, and… okay, she had this big speech written out and made me memorize it but I forgot the rest of it and I can’t read sign language. I’m sorry."
The rant ended with a very simple one-finger gesture from Vivi Wei.
"I think you probably know what that means, though," Dave added.
Chuckles floated up from the crowd of assorted journalists, as Chen tried to make sense of why this had fallen apart.
It didn’t make sense, that was the problem. The Voice and three terrorists were not an army. Why pretend to be an army? Why stir up his little hornet’s nest, make them stomp out here and round up possible suspects, waste all their time and energy… only to get captured? What was the point, knowing all four of them would be easily captured by a stronger foe?
All four of them.
Only two were kneeling here. He’d been so fixated on the Voice that he hadn’t bothered to keep count.
"Gasoline rations will remain unaffected. Today’s weather will be sunny and mild, with partial cloud cover—" the Radio carried on, unaware of the pending disaster.
"—two suspects are loose!" Chen shouted at his gathered men. "You idiots, you must’ve let the real Voice slip by you! Hurry! Find her, before—"
"—with a humidity index of sixty percent, and… excuse me? Ma’am? You can’t just barge in here, I happen to be on the air, and…"
…and silence. Every Radio speaker across the Citadel, falling to silence. The first truly dead air the Radio had experienced in its entire history.
They were probably going to shoot Chen for incompetence anyway, he realized.
Charging blindly down trench after trench, the Enemy screamed as it hunted this strange new prey. Screaming and screaming and screaming, screaming forever, without bothering to breathe. Each individual unit in the army of darkness felt enough rage for a dozen soldiers, as they turned blind corners designed to absorb pressure waves from explosions… only to run into dead ends, or junctions that doubled back onto themselves.
"You’re not going to catch her this way," the delicately dressed child warned. "You’re playing games with an expert in play. She so loves her little mazes—"
A hail of gunfire from a dozen automatic weapons annihilated the girl. Echo shattered like glass, silvery shards falling to the muddy ground below.
"Not very bright, are you?"
Behind them, now. An identical child, with identical nonchalance. No fear, no terror. Echo knew neither, not when facing such sad little things.
"No. You’re not the aspect. You’re only a manifestation of the aspect," Echo reasoned. "We seek your leader, your creator. The TRUE Enemy. Come forth and place your head on the block; perhaps we shall show you pity, and the mercy of nothingness—"
This time, the hail of bullets changed directions mid-flight, bending two hard ninety degree turns to slam straight back into the corrupt flesh of the Enemy-things. An entire cluster of them dropped into the mud… survivors stepping on the bodies to charge ahead, to chase the colored splash of strangeness that bent their bullets around…
Bedlam screeched like a banshee, pulling the sound in and around their throats. With a tight yank of erratic energy, heads exploded, one by one.
One of the Echoes sighed, wiping a fresh spray of blood off her face.
"You need to lead your targets on more," she warned. "Engage less. Tease and taunt them, as I do. If you use up everything you have before we find the heart…"
// what? // what what // we die? // that’s what worries you? Bedlam asked. // we cannot die! // we are ideas!
"Yes, but even ideas can be purged from the mind! And if the entirety of our physical form is harmed, how long before we can restructure and return to this physical battle? We have mortal attributes… if we are spent and ruined, our concepts annihilated under the weight of another…!"
// partypooper. // fine.
The child of color declined to give chase to the next group of hollow-eyed men that approached. Instead… she pulled at the pile of dead Enemies before her. Pulled limb from sinew from bone, fashioning them into new forms, breathing her own demented artwork into them…
In the end, these extensions of the Enemy were weak, so weak. One like Bedlam, focused and pure in her chaos, could override their impetus with her own.
The freshly cubist revenant, a Picasso of undeath, lurched along on a series of elbows towards the new wave of troops. The whirling madness of hate tore into the physical shells of hate, gathering mass, snowballing down the lane. Eventually it would collapse… but not before absorbing enough of the dark army’s might to allow Bedlam and Echo a breather.
Conveniently, the momentary lapse in the Enemy’s onslaught also allowed Echo a moment to refocus. She’d spread herself too thin; by now most of the Citadel forces had retreated, and with the Commander unavailable to clarify how they should proceed, they were digging in and waiting. Why push forward if nobody was pushing down on you from above? Which meant Echo could let those mirror-selves collapse to shards, returning their will to her prime focus.
Raising one pale hand… she pointed the way to the darkest shadow of the battlefield.
"We continue," she announced. "I believe our prey to be this direction, and… wait. It draws nearer. Nearer still. Bedlam, it’s moving so fast—!"
Howls of rage. Absolute rage, from all directions.
Enemy troops that were about to leap into the trench to assault the pair… collapsed. Antilight poured from their empty sockets, pulling the animate force from their fleshy bodies. Guns sank into the mud, discarded, as the streams of darkness coalesced…
…into a single form.
Shapeless. Indescribable. Absolute. And bearing down on the two City aspects, pulsing with the perfection of hatred itself powering its movement.
Echo only felt proper fear one other time in her life… when Bedlam was near death, torn to pieces by the madness of the Builders which countered her own madness perfectly. Now, she got to enjoy that feeling of fear all over again, for herself and her sister.
…we’re coming to stop them, we’re coming to stand against them, we’re coming down the spiral to claim it for ourselves with the help of the one who stands with us against them…
The strange poetry of Cass looped over and over again through Penelope’s head, as she made her way down the spiral of dreams for the second time in her life.
Once, she descended to the Heart of the City to learn the truth about herself. She saw an image of Patient 23, a symbolic link, representing the dream and how it worked. The truth unmade people like Archie… and it scared Penelope into running away from accepting her dream, time and time again. Today, she charged straight down that spiral unafraid. To the Heart of the Citadel…
Of course, one reason why she moved with such speed would be the bullets bouncing off every surface around them.
Quinn had snagged a rifle off a fallen guard, to use for suppressing fire. Penelope’s job was to provide as much cover as she could; throwing open the rusty doors of these unused asylum corridors, warping stair railings around to snag and ensnare chasers, peeling back the floor to form a defensive curl around them. But they couldn’t simply dive for cover and hide, no, they had to press forward. Always forward and down, following the map Dave had laid out for her…
Or was that simply linear thinking, hampering her?
When she crawled the spiral for her City, she was stuck with following the road before her. At the time she didn’t realize she could reshape the dream to her needs; the Sideways presented a path of daggers to traverse, much like this dangerous descent. So… why stick to the road? She knew where she needed to go, could see Dave’s map in her mind. Why not take a more direct route?
After Quinn expended his clip, she grabbed his arm to snag his attention.
"Jump!" she ordered, pointing to a nearby railing… which overlooked a whole lot of nothing, winding down to the bottom.
"Seriously!?" he shouted back.
So… with a scream of understandable terror, he jumped, with Penelope at his side.
The elevator slid sideways, bursting out of a door (and doorframe). The doors yawned open, catching them perfectly, then slammed shut in time to intercept a hail of gunfire. Rattling around inside the thing like ping-pong balls in a bingo tumbler wasn’t exactly fun, but having a huge metal shell of armor definitely beat being shot.
With concentrated effort, Penelope grasped one of the handrails… and guided the path. Wires snapped out from every wall, complicated networks of pulleys and motors, to curve the path of the elevator and adjust its alignment. Soon, it was spinning lazily downward… which wasn’t fast enough, so she snapped a few safety wires. Now they were getting somewhere…
The entire contents of a discount mattress reseller met them at the bottom. The elevator crashed to a fluffy halt, doors opening, disgorging the two. Penelope and Quinn tumbled down a pile of certified posture-friendly and silky surfaces, coming to a final halt at the bottom.
With unsteady feet, Penelope lurched forward, and—
Walked face first into the fear.
Fear. Absolute fear and panic, radiating outward from that final door. The Madman. Whoever or whatever he was… even through a door that looked like it belonged on a battleship, she could feel his projected horror…
Quinn’s empty rifle dropped away, forgotten.
"Oh… ohhh, boy," he proclaimed. "That’s. That is… really a thing, isn’t it…"
"I’m going in there," Penelope spoke… perhaps to herself, as a command.
"Right. In we go, then."
"We? What? No! Your brains’ll turn into toothpaste!"
"And I want to keep all of my blood inside my body, but the guys chasing us have other things in mind," Quinn reminded her. "We blew it, Penelope. The quiet approach failed; I can’t just wait out here. That means… I have to go in. I mean, it’s certain death either way, but maybe I can be of a little help to you on the way out…"
he’s going to die you can do nothing
He was going to die, and she couldn’t do anything about it.
Quinn Qureshi. Until recently, a willing cog in a machine, sacrificing all ambitions in the name of small and reasonable goals. He threw away everything to follow here… including the promising future she could’ve provided for him. He could’ve become someone important, perhaps the next Commander, or the next iteration of whatever concept would replace the Commander. A man of the people, a leader, someone who had experienced the Citadel on every level and stood by it with passionate determination…
you failed even when you win you fail you can’t win
That wonderful boy who loved her in his own strange little way was going to die, and it was all her fault.
"NO," she decided.
And shoved him roughly backwards… into a modest oak door, which had opened up behind him. Quinn’s arms wheeled, trying to find purchase on the doorframe and failing… leaving him falling on his rear, in a closet filled with shoe trees.
"You’re too important to me to die," Penelope said. "I’m sorry. I love you."
With a swipe of the hand, she closed the door on the protesting boy, and shuffled the closet back to Resistance headquarters.
Her first conscious long-range shuffle. Didn’t she have to be asleep to do something like that? Wasn’t that one of the rules…?
I’m not sure I believe in rules anymore, she’d told Patient 31.
Sneaking into the Radio Station wasn’t that difficult, not with the entire security force out shaking up the streets. Besides, they were technically cheating by using neither the front door, nor the back door, nor any sort of secret entrance.
They were using the newly installed emergency stairwell, which didn’t exist until a moment ago.
The two guards posted by Studio One took one look at Kelsey, Kelsey took one look deep within them, and they ran away screaming. A good trick, even if it wouldn’t have worked on the full security force of the Radio Station.
Vivi Jørgensen (Vivian to her new liaison) was adept enough at picking locks to get them the rest of the way.
And… this is where the plan might have failed miserably. They had no idea what would lie on the other side of the door to the legendary Studio One. Perhaps it would simply be a man, sitting there reading from printed copy. Perhaps it would be a swirling vortex of electromagnetic nonsense, radio waves incarnate. Perhaps it would be incomprehensible, or inaccessible… rendering this entire mission moot.
Still, they had to try. This was the linchpin; swaying the hearts of the people meant borrowing their ears. That meant the Radio.
And on the other side of the door, on the other side of the door…
…was a simple pile of electronics, on a table. Extremely old, with glowing tubes and dials and meters galore. One huge silvery microphone stood upright in the center, with the WCTL branding… and nobody sitting in the chair placed carefully in front of it.
Studio One was empty. And yet…
"…with a humidity index of sixty percent, and… excuse me? Ma’am? You can’t just barge in here, I happen to be on the air, and…"
The voice coming through the desktop speaker box trailed off, tubes glowing intensely as they studied the woman who now stood in the presence of the Radio.
Kelsey busied herself with shoving a few filing cabinets in front of the door, to barricade it. Vivian, however… approached the Radio with caution, hesitantly resting a hand on the back of the empty announcer’s chair.
"Mr. Radio," she greeted. "Do you know me? My name is Vivi."
A few tubes went dark.
"…I believe this conversation would be best held in private, as much as I dislike dead air," the speaker box replied to the smaller speaker box dangling around Vivi’s neck. "Yes. I know you, child. I wondered if we might one day meet in this manner."
"You’re responsible for changing me, aren’t you?" Vivi asked / accused. "You shared your voice with me. …and then you left me to be poked and prodded at by scientists!"
"I saw a child without a voice, who very much deserved one," the Radio replied, dials flickering with each pulse of volume. "I saw the possibility of greatness within you, if only the people could hear your words. …I am a bit disappointed that you turned to the Resistance instead of supporting the might and glory of your Citadel."
"Disappointed?! You, you—ugh. No. No, this is not what we need to talk about right now," Vivi decided. "This isn’t about me and you. I’m here today to convince you to believe in victory."
"I’m afraid I don’t follow, child…"
"Right now, my friends are fighting the Enemy, and facing the Madman," she explained. "They’re fighting for your… for OUR Citadel. But they won’t win. The Citadel doesn’t believe they’ll win… because YOU keep urging caution, and denying them hope!"
"Is that why you’ve come to me? A strange thing to talk about. Mindless optimism leads to crushed hopes. A realist prepares for every contingency, including the worst. The Citadel must remain strong, must stand against the Enemy. Only through our unity can we persevere through the darkest of days—"
"Is that all you want us to do? ‘Persevere’?!"
The flicker of volume indicators stayed buried in the black of zero.
"What would you propose?" the Radio asked. "That we perish?"
"I propose that we defeat our Enemy. Not through strength of arms… but by taking away the Enemy’s power over our hearts and minds," Vivi spoke, arms wide. "Instead of fear of the other, we love ourselves. We stand with confidence, knowing we are better than them. We are MORE than the Enemy. The only power they hold over us is the power to force us into this endless arms race, to make us throw our lives away while they sit back and laugh…"
Now she stepped forward… sitting in the empty chair. It belonged to her just as much as it belonged to the Radio, after all. The other occupant of the room, the Builder, she was completely out of Vivi’s mind now… her head was filled with burning ideas, glowing bright like an overcharged vacuum tube. The warmth of the signal filled her so completely, so full to bursting…
"You may see the war in pragmatic terms, but the Enemy does not," Vivi modulated across her personal spectrum. "They don’t want us to win, they don’t want us to lose. They want us to SUFFER. Don’t give them the satisfaction. Give the people hope that this world can be something other than a graveyard. That’s what you should be broadcasting! And if you believe I deserve a voice, if you went out of your way to give me one… you’ll listen to my words now, and believe in them as well!"
With that… Vivi grasped the handle of the microphone, and pressed the big red button at the base.
The radio’s tubes burned with absolute radiance, now.
"People of the Citadel," they spoke, in unison. The Radio and Vivi and Vivi and the Radio. "Our apologies for the silence, just now. There have been… issues to consider. To reconsider, I suppose. I believe we have come to consensus. This broadcast is of absolute importance; gather your families, gather your friends. It is time to speak of the pending victory over our Enemy. Today, we will dare to live the dream so many have denied themselves… a dream of peace for this generation, and generations yet to come…"
The howling darkness which threatened to overtake the sisters completely… froze.
A waveform floated between them, interrupting the rampage of the Enemy. Curious… Bedlam picked the sound from the spectrum, turning it around and filtering it through an amplifying megaphone she happened to not actually have handy.
"…as we speak, we are deploying new tactics against the Enemy," the Radio continued. "With the help of our allies from the City of Angles and with sensible members of the Resistance, ones who stand for our Citadel rather than against it… we will push back the darkness once and for all. I realize I have advocated strength in honor and arms above all, but I say to you now… let this be the end of our war! For our Enemy is nothing. It is weak, it is pathetic, it is beneath our contempt. We have struggled and bled and sacrificed, and yet it has never beaten us! It cannot! And today, we turn in one voice, to say to the Enemy… NO. No, we will no longer tolerate you. You cannot overcome our will to live—"
Shrieking rage, overcoming Bedlam’s giggles at the funny words floating through the air. The megaphone vanished, cutting off the signal… but it was still there, pumping out through every speaker, sliding through every ear, changing every mind…
Soldiers pulled away from the frontline heard it. They’d seen the angels in the white dresses and the swirling kaleidoscope of chaos; they knew something was different. Without a perpetual stream of bullets flying over their heads, they were more inclined to listen to the Radio’s words. All across the frontlines, as they dug in and waited for a counterattack that never came… they dared to think: Is the Enemy gone? Did it retreat, at last?
All across the Citadel, in homes and factories and schools and bars, they heard the words. So strange, the Radio advocating these new ideas. But… it was the familiar paternal voice that spoke to them all their lives. They knew to trust it. They knew it would always speak truthfully to them…
The broadcast—combined with Bedlam and Echo rounding up the Enemy’s forces and pulling them away from the teeming mass of humanity—did the job nicely of sapping the power of the darkness.
Shadows howled and clawed at the edges of the trench, tearing it apart, shredding the world around Echo and Bedlam with bomb blasts and napalm and a million bullets… but none of it mattered. The Enemy couldn’t hurt them, not anymore.
"Unfortunate for you," Echo spoke, sadly. "How little you turned out to be, nothing more than sound and fury. It’s time to perish, little aspect. Your host does not want you."
And now… it was the Enemy’s turn to laugh. It was the laughter of a million furnaces and ovens, a throne of skulls chattering on the wind.
WE. CANNOT. PERISH, it promised. THEY. NEED. US.
// stupid // silly // nonsense. // and that’s something // coming from nonsense like me, Bedlam mocked. // why would anyone // anyone ever // want or need you?
The Enemy grew with pride, despite its rapidly diminishing form.
WE. PROVIDE. UNITY. — WE. PROVIDE. FOCUS.
WE. ARE. HATE. — THEY. HATE. US.
WE. DEFINE. THEM.
IF. WE. FADE…
"…if you did not exist, they would have to invent you," Echo understood. "You are their Other; something for them to rally against. Without you, they’ll have to find some other outlet for their hate. They’ll turn on each other."
It made an unfortunate sort of sense to Echo. Humanity did thrive in conflict and challenge… and the Enemy provided the perfect challenge. Unbeatable, but never defeating them. Everybody could agree on one thing, shared hatred of the Enemy, and form the bonds of community in the name of that hate. Once the war ended… what would become of the Citadel?
But even as Echo trembled internally… Bedlam was giggling, all over again.
// silly and stupid, she accused. // you think you know them? // I thought I knew them. // I thought they were pure chaos, that they were best swept away by absolute madness. That they’d be happiest that way. // But they are ultimately beyond chaos and order, beyond your hate…
…her color and light swirling around, into human shape now. Focused and flawless, even as her skin danced with a thousand patterns. Eyes of emerald light bore down on the shrinking shadow, willing it back into the mud, like a blinding spotlight…
// It doesn’t matter what you think they are. They are what they are. You think they need to hate the Other? I am the very definition of the Other, and some of them have embraced me! They love me! In the end… they will choose the Lucid path. It’s inevitable. They may stumble, they may fall, they may despair… but on a long enough timescale, they become what they are. And while they may court you from time to time, yes… they don’t NEED you. // And they never will.
Squealing like a rodent in a trap, now. So small.
And so Bedlam stepped on the Enemy, crushing it down into microscopic nothingness.
With this final victory… she breathed easily, unwinding her form back to a swirling cloud of conceptual visuals.
// okay // okay // so that was a bit much // but it felt AWESOME, okay? // okay.
"…sadly, he may have a point," Echo felt she had to say. "The Enemy cannot be truly destroyed any more than we could be. The Citadel will have to struggle with him in some form or another for the rest of their lives, I suspect."
// eh // not worried. // if he can’t adapt like we have // he won’t thrive.
Echo closed her eyes, casting outward across the dream. Riding the wave of the broadcast, to continue measuring the overall mood of this world…
…hope, yes. The Lucid path.
But… the Citadel was still built on a foundation of terror. Every brick, every stone, every slab of concrete resonated with the Madman’s fear. Fear enough to allow the Enemy to find new in-roads into the Citadel, sliding like ooze into the cracks of humanity’s mind…
"This battle may be won," she stated, "But I fear unless our sister can turn back the tide for good… the war will return in short order."
No time to hesitate. Penelope would be going into that awful room eventually, so why not immediately?
She popped the bolts and locks with a thought, and after holding her breath for a moment… stepped into the Madman’s personal hell.
The Builders were brought here, to be trained in the craft of building. One hour in the Madman’s presence was enough to tear Kelsey’s mind to pieces; only now after years and years was she starting to heal. Penelope, for all her bluster and swagger, had been born a human being and continued to live a human life. How would she fare in that awful place…?
At first… quite well. It seemed like any other room in a classic bedlam house, after all; padded walls, bright lights… and a man in a straitjacket, sitting in the corner.
Correction. A straitjacket in a straitjacket.
Woven of cloth and buckles, his flesh matched the garment he wore to bind him in place. Every part of him was restraint and security, from skin to hair to eyes—those eyes, like the silver studs on a belt, rotating to glint the overhead light in Penelope’s direction…
Pushed back two inches by the force of his terror, but she held her ground.
"We… have to talk," she managed, through gritted teeth.
The walls slammed into place immediately. Brick woven with barbed wire, security doors rated against heavy explosive blasts. Lock after lock after lock dangling in place without any doorknob to speak of, coming down between Lucid and the man she’d come to see…
With a burst of frustrated energy, Penelope popped every single lock, installed a doorknob, and stepped through the door. …to face another wall, another door. This one more heavily fortified than the last…
"You can’t hide forever!" she called out to the open air, as she slammed her way through that door, and the next, and the next. "You SHOULDN’T hide forever. I’m not here to hurt you! I’m trying to help—aaghh—!"
Pain, as she went through the next door. Deeper and deeper, right into the Madman’s private nightmare… and he was tearing away at her, little by little. The taste of blood and copper filled her mouth…
run run run away must be hidden must be safe they’re coming for me
She did want to run. But ‘want’ and ‘need’ were different things; she needed to press forward. No matter how much physical pain, she had to advance. Door after door, smashing through walls, tearing through electrified wire. The sick smell of burning flesh and hair…
Which presented a paradox. She had to confront him, to save the Citadel. But if she continued, she might die before ever reaching that confrontation.
Didn’t matter how passionate she was about her ideals, the simple truth was that exposure to the Madman at the height of his paranoia was hazardous to human health. With every step, more and more of her would be torn away; she could feel it with each motion forward she made. Would there be anything left to actually confront the aspect with…?
no no stop don’t come any closer you’ll die so much agony wound burn bleed
"He’s right," her father spoke. "If you keep moving forward, you may need to leave Penelope behind. I had to leave myself behind, to defend us all. Are you sure you want to do the same?"
"The… the Citadel needs me," she replied, while shoving aside the rubble of a collapsed wall with bruised hands. "My City needs me. I have to try…!"
"You’ve lived a mortal life all this time. Why throw that away now?" Quinn asked. "Why throw away everything we could’ve had, if only we had more time?"
"Nngh… okay, for starters, quit it with the peanut gallery," Penelope demanded, while climbing through the blasted rubble of a bombed-out building. "It’s obnoxious. Stop running and face me, soldier!"
Marcy looked up, from tagging what was left of a wall. "He’s not the one doing this to you; you’re doing it to yourself," she explained. "It’s a decision point. Your Lucid self has faced you during decision points before, right? Same deal."
Now… Penelope paused in her relentless chase. Her body thanked her for a momentary lapse in the agony.
"So… I have to decide between ending the nightmare, OR keeping myself alive?" she asked the assembled shades. "That’s what you’re saying, that I can’t have both?"
"So strange, the way you chose to breathe your spirit into a mortal form," Echo had mused, within the farmhouse that became a garden of hanged men. "So frail, so limited. So powerless. Why did you do that, Lucid child? I’m genuinely curious…"
"I had to do it!" Lucid protested. "I had to experience life the way they did. I was… so hazy, so indistinct. My voice was barely a whisper! If I was to be the spirit that endures, I needed to endure! I had to EXIST. …I loved being Penelope. She had friends, and family, and love. I learned so much…"
Now… a gentle hand fell to her shoulder. The familiar smell of tea and peppermint followed it.
"All of which will forever change you," Grandma Scarlett assured her. "You’ve learned so much, yes. You know you’d never have gotten this far without everyone who loves you; they’ve supported you all the way. Now is the time to carry their love forward, and become what you will become."
With trembling eyes, the child looked up at her grandmother.
"I’m scared," Penelope admitted. "I… I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be only Lucid again…"
"Why?" Quinn asked her. "This isn’t really your death, it’s your life. Everything changes over time, including you. Leaving behind who you are, moment to moment, is perfectly natural. And besides… you don’t believe in rules, right? Who says you need to be only Lucid…?"
Surrounded now, by all those who loved her. The dream of these people, wrapping around her like a warm blanket. Yes, they were all a part of Penelope Yates… the girl who could never have been what she was without them…
She’d miss those wonderful people. She’d miss the life that she had, the existence she enjoyed with them. But they’d still be there, on the other side of this. And so would she.
On reaching the last door of the Madman’s maze, while reaching with weakened and wounded flesh for the lever to open it… Penelope Yates perished.
Born with the new century. Died at a tender young sixteen years. Lived to the fullest.
In her place, Lucid stepped through the door.
But not Lucid as she was before, no. She was such a hollow ghost, once upon a time… a dying orphan’s wish for a hopeful future, nearly mute within the dreams of city living that she carried with her. This wasn’t that frail little thing, no, nor was it the human teenager called Penny by her father. She’d become something more, for both of them.
Her form glowed with the red heartbeat of life, an instrument tuned by the vaccine that Doctor Bates used to transform her into a living reality engine. No mortal flesh, but a nicely mortal form in design. Two arms, two legs, two eyes. She’d even retained her little explorer’s hat, because why not? It was cute.
The rules said she needed a new name. Grandma Scarlett wasn’t born Scarlett; she chose her own name, to better suit the life she wanted to lead. It had mythic resonance, after all.
Such a critical moment, this birth of a new point of view. The dream inhaled, as the manifest aspect chose its path…
"Naaah," she decided. "I’ll stick with Penelope, in honor of who made me what I am today. Plus it’s a pretty sweet-ass name, being the dreamweaver and stuff."
If the dream was mildly disappointed, she honestly didn’t care. She had bigger concerns at the moment, having finally reached the Heart of the Citadel. Having finally reached the Madman.
Gone was the protective shell of the straitjacket man. He was laid bare and trembling, a terrified human figure. A figure which vaguely resembled what was once a Leftenant in His Majesty’s Armed Forces, lost within himself and then within an American asylum early in life… now sat in a corner of the dream-room, curled up and terrified, trying to hide his face from the warmth and light that had entered his cell.
Penelope floated over to him… and sat on the floor. Patient, quiet. Waiting.
Eventually… the Madman dared to look at her. Despite the radiance and power she represented, he felt… comforted, in some small way. She was comfort, after all; the comfort of human life and hope.
"Hello," Penelope greeted.
"H-Hello," the Madman returned, politely.
"It’s going to be okay. I promise you, everything’s going to be okay. Your war ended a long time ago," she assured him. "I know it doesn’t feel that way now. I know you keep reliving the Great War in your mind, again and again. But… reach out. Can you feel your Citadel? Today they stood against the darkness, and won. Feel it, Leftenant. Feel it…"
Slowly… the man uncurled from the tight little ball he’d lived in for a century’s time.
"I… I can feel it," he realized. "There’s… celebration? And light. And hope…"
"War’s always going to be with them, one way or another," she warned. "But it doesn’t have to dominate their lives. You can show them another way. They need you, to help them rebuild; you made their homes, their farms and factories. They can live without fear but only if you’re ready to stand with them. Can you do that, soldier? I’m not saying it’ll be easy… but can you do it?"
"But… but what about…"
The other thing he was hiding from. The real thing he was trying to avoid looking at…
A comatose man, sleeping in a hospital bed. The upward spiral of the Citadel, flowing from his mind. The same truth that Penelope had found in the Heart of the City, now represented in the Heart of the Citadel.
So… the Citadel had one of these as well, Penelope realized. Did all the dreamers have the truth buried inside them, this monument to their own suffering…?
Still, she smiled at the image.
"Why does that have to be a problem?" she asked him. "This world is a dream? Okay. This world is a dream. Some of your people will have trouble with that, yes, but imagine the possibilities! No more pain, no more suffering. The world can be anything you want it to be, if it’s a dream. Don’t hide from that; embrace it."
Slowly… the buckles and restraints began to give way on the straitjacket in the man’s mind.
"It can be anything I want it to be," he repeated, trying to convince himself.
"Absolutely. If you’re willing to accept it… you’ll be just fine," she promised him. "Okay? I’ll always be around somewhere, within the dream. I can help you through. I’m going to help all of the patients, in time, and all the people lost within these dreams. It’s going to take a lot of work, but I think we can do it. Will you help, sir?"
The change crept slowly through the mental patient’s room. Uncertain and hesitant, but inevitable.
Quilted padding gave way to wallpaper, covered in sepia-toned photographs of family long lost. The bed with the patient gave way, becoming a work desk covered in blueprints; he didn’t need that image now, not after accepting the truth of it. (Probably for the best, considering how someone like Bedlam trying to manipulate the image affected her own world. Better to embrace and ingest it than leave something that dangerous lying around.)
Soon, the Prime Builder stood as a statue in his workshop, a marble figure wearing chiseled workman’s clothes. His military uniform remained hanging nearby on a clothes rack; with the war long since over, he could retire to the career in architecture he’d always wanted.
Penelope breathed in, and out. Felt the pulse of life more fully than ever before, in this new form. She knew, knew in her heart, that the Citadel was on its way to healing. Kelsey and the Prime Builder would teach new Builders to construct without fear. The Enemy would lurk in the shadows, looking for in-roads, and finding few. And the Radio would speak as it always had, with honesty and integrity… but with a renewed swell of hope as well.
The aspects of Patient 12 had been brought into harmony.
In the process, the aspects of Patient 23 had been brought into harmony, as well.
"Impressive," Echo admitted, to Penelope’s right. "It seems we have reached consensus."
// wow // I was pretty stupid before, huh? Bedlam pondered, to Penelope’s left. // this is // so much better. // much much.
…this moment. Right now, in this moment. Between who she was and who she would be, she felt in perfect union with the dream. Anything was possible, anything at all. …including…
"I’ve got an idea," Penelope spoke.
"…that’s a rather audacious idea," Echo spoke, with alarm.
// ohhhhh yes // I LIKE it, Bedlam spoke, with glee.
"Right here, right now… I think we could do it," Penelope said, turning to her sister-selves. "Who’s up for a little sleepwalking?"
In the hustle and bustle of a hot Atlanta day, the temperature remained nice and chilly in the facility.
Data points had been flowing in all morning. Patient 12’s brainwaves were particularly unusual, but so were Patient 23’s… which made sense to Jack Hayes, given the recent crossover activity between the two. At first he assumed this was further meddling by Bates, the guy who walked right out the door of reality back in the Fifties, but… maybe, maybe not. As long as he had more time to analyze these samples, perhaps he could get a clearer idea of what was going on there…
The sleeping child in Room 23 remained passive, flowing with data but motionless as always.
Until she wasn’t.
The doctor dropped his clipboard in shock, when the girl’s eyes opened wide.
"Jack Hayes," Patient 23 spoke, recognizing him.
…didn’t make sense, not one bit. She was still asleep, according to the monitors. The reality she was generating persisted, despite this sudden blast of conscious activity. What was going on…?
"The experiment is officially over," she declared. "You’re not going to torment these dreamers one minute longer. Goodbye."
Every single monitor flatlined, as wires and leads and tubes fell to the bed sheets. The rough outline of a human body they had been assembled in gave way, when the body vanished.
Footsteps sounded in the hallway of the CDC facility, doctors and nurses and researchers running from room to room. One of them finally burst through the door with the number 23 on it, grabbing the doorframe to keep momentum from causing her to tumble right into the room.
"Th… they’re gone!" she exclaimed. "All the patients. They’re all gone…!"
Truthfully, Jack had been looking for a way out of this dead-end project. All work and no play made Jack a dull boy; he should’ve been relieved to know it was all over and he could move on to other things. Although… if you asked him that morning HOW it would all end, he’d never have guessed this. It was an impossible-to-predict data point, after all.
For lack of a better thing to be doing in this moment… he jotted that data point down.
12:23 P.M., patient disappeared.
A final note, for his notepad. While not truly understanding the importance of anything, anything at all.
Penelope awoke in bed, on the other side of the metadream. Back in the comfort and safety of herself…
At the Heart of the City, in fact. Her own copy of Room 23. Penelope’s newly born form replaced the truth of the heart, the sleeper who represented the whole.
After a yawn and a stretch, she floated off the bed and over to the locked door. Conveniently, she’d slid the key underneath the door three years ago. Plucking it from the floor and letting herself out was simple enough.
He was waiting for her, on the other side of that door. Escaping a physical prison was an easy matter for him, after all, provided he wanted to leave.
"I had to see it with my own eyes," Doctor Bates spoke. "They’re all here. You moved the patients into your own dream. This shouldn’t be possible…"
"You said it yourself, remember? Why does the Earth have to be anything other than another dream?" Penelope asked him. "Why not shuffle all the patients over to this copy of the facility, rescuing them from that awful place? Makes sense to me."
"But… but to reach them, you’d have to wake up! Your City should be destroyed, just like my prison. That’s the rule…"
"I told you I didn’t believe in rules. Besides, I didn’t fully wake up; I was sleepwalking. Lucid dreaming, if you like. Half-in, half-out, to keep my City safe while reaching the other patients. …at any other point in my existence, no way I could do that. But in harmony with my sisters, at last? Absolutely."
They were there, as well. Bedlam and Echo, alongside Lucid. The collective viewpoints of Patient 23, now working towards the same goals, despite their differences.
"Lucid made a promise to me, back when I agreed to our truce," Echo spoke. "If she could wake the sleeper AND turn our nightmare into a dream, I would desist in trying to awaken myself. Now, we have done it together. The sleepers are safe, and our nightmare—all the nightmares, really—have a chance to become the dreams they truly can be. Safely tucked away in our dream, they’ll no longer abduct echoes from Earth, either. I can comfort them, to drive away the pulses of loneliness that ruined so many lives…"
// fun times ahead // so fun and crazy and wild, Bedlam added, itching in anticipation, pulsing with color. // all those worlds changing // echoes fading // new eras and generations to arise // ohhh, so much wonderful chaos!
Penelope extended a glowing hand, pulsing with her heartbeat, to the doctor.
"I asked you if you’d help me, back when you were still letting the Commander keep you locked away," she reminded him. "We’ve got a lot of work to do, if we’re going to help each and every one of the dreamers find their own inner peace. Will you help? Are you ready to stop sitting in a cell and feeling sorry for yourself?"
Not once in his extensive lifetime did Bates imagine this possible. He’d dreamed of patients healing themselves, of his own journeys to heal them from within, but… perhaps he’d never truly believed it possible. So many wrongs to make a right, and so many failures. What right did he have to think he could be of any use in such an endeavor?
And yet… something in the smile of that girl told him that it was possible. He could yet redeem himself.
Doctor Bates accepted the hand, shaking it firmly. Such warmth, from her skin.
"There’s much to do, but we’ve all the time we need," he spoke. "As your doctor, I prescribe a lengthy rest, and considerable self-reflection. We’ll begin soon… but you’ve earned a well-deserved moment of peace, Penelope Yates."
The checkpoint appeared overnight. No Builder constructed it, and no City Department had authorized its development. One moment it simply wasn’t, and then it simply was.
While the artificial bleed machines began to sputter and die, the checkpoint remained firmly open. Given the permanent-looking facility for processing passports and security protocols which sprung out of the ground alongside it, odds were this was meant to be a new permanent feature within both worlds. And with perfect timing, too, as the Deconscription Act had been issued by Commander Yates that very day.
He spoke to his people on the Radio, after the chaos that soaked the Radio Station finally settled down.
"We’re entering into a new era for both Citadel and City alike," he announced, through one of the backup studios. (Nobody went into Studio One, not even the Commander. Supposedly someone snuck in there earlier, but it was empty when the guards finally broke down the door.) "The Enemy has been driven back, and I’d like to believe it’s been driven back for good. While I feel a strong security presence is still required to maintain an orderly society, we no longer need such a large-scale force. With that in mind… all citizens of the City of Angles will be allowed to return home, while Citadel forces return to their beloved land. I hope we can put this ugly affair behind us, and work together towards a better tomorrow…"
With the Citadel armed forces keeping watch over one end and the remnants of the Department of Safety watching the other, travel opened between the two worlds. Strict controls were put in place to prevent defection… from the Citadel to the City, of course, as few in the City actually wanted to jump sides. It was a brutish and severe deportation, but at least it was a start.
On the day the Citadel’s TroubleSolvers were to disband, they gathered at a small outdoor restaurant near the checkpoint to say their goodbyes.
"I’m not leaving," Cass declared.
"If you stay here, I can’t promise you’ll ever be able to come back," Miranda Walker warned. "I’m going to push to keep our side of the checkpoint open, but I’m guessing once all the Angles are through, the Commander’s going to lock his side down tighter than a drum…"
"That’s why I have to stay. This world needs strong voices and strong words, even without a monolithic Enemy to lock horns with," Cass said… while exchanging glances with Vivian. "The TroubleSolvers still have work to do, as long as the Commander’s regime stays in power. …tell Reg and Fi and the truckers and the others, well… sorry. But my poems are needed here."
[I’ll miss you terribly, Cass. But I believe you’re in good hands here,] Vivi of the City of Angles signed, her counterpart handling translation. [Myself… I’m going home. I want to see my sister again, I want to see my soulmate again. Word has it my sister came out of her coma the morning of our victory; I have to imagine the two events are related…]
Miranda set her iced tea down, deciding she’d had enough for now. Sharing pleasantries and drinks while her City’s government was in shambles… not a great use of her time, all considered, even if she’d agreed to this symbolic send-off.
"I’ve given up trying to figure out how things are supposed to work," she decided. "I’ll be happy just to see some semblance of peace and quiet, once everything sorts itself out. I’m heading to the checkpoint, Vivi. Coming?"
Vivi nodded in agreement. Hugs were exchanged while Miranda stood by impatiently, and then the two groups parted ways.
But not before one final thing to think about.
"Wonder if we’ll see her again," Cass pondered. "Penelope. She went missing in all the craziness…"
[Whether or not we see her again… I know she hasn’t abandoned us,] Vivi suggested. [That’s not who she is. We’ll live and carry her ideals forward, regardless. And if we do see her again, we’ll smile anew, knowing we’ve made her proud.]
Pen scratched away on paper, as the final signatures were added to the document. A wax seal was added, to make it nice and official.
"That’ll do it," the Commander spoke, turning away from his desk to look out his office window. "You’re officially pardoned of all crimes against your Citadel."
The boy accepted the document, tucking it away inside his vest’s inner pocket.
"I was never against my Citadel, sir," Quinn Qureshi corrected him.
"Suppose you weren’t. Suppose you weren’t, at that…"
The streets below positively glowed with the light of the setting sun. Once again, Yates ruled from the top of the Bulwark… a slightly different angle on it all, given his old office was still underground somewhere and he had to commandeer a new one from the Minister of Education. But the same Citadel, all told.
It wouldn’t stay the same Citadel, of course. Already he heard the whispers on the lips of those treacherous bastards he called his Ministers. What of the standing army? What of the Resistance? What of the perpetual emergency powers the Commander held? What would happen to the Citadel, exactly, without the war to define it…?
"Do you think they’ll lynch me?" the Commander wondered, aloud.
"I… don’t know, sir," Quinn replied, not sure if it was a rhetorical question. "Do you think they should?"
"Maybe. Maybe. Nothing I did helped, in the end. For all my sins… I can’t even say the ends justified those means. I felt at the time that I didn’t mind being the villain, provided I could save future generations with my villainy. A war criminal can still win a war, after all. But now…"
He turned away from the window, to study the boy.
A bright young man, indeed. He’d seen Quinn’s file; not quite the top of his class, but not the worst, either. In the end he’d been the right man in the wrong place at the right time. A boy like that normally wouldn’t go very far in this world built on strength and obedience, but… that wasn’t the world they were going to live in, was it? Not anymore.
"You’ve got what you came for. You’re dismissed, son. …with one request, from your former Commander."
"Make better use of your life than I did."
In the hall beyond the Commander’s office, Quinn breathed a bit easier.
He was no longer an enlisted man. The papers gave him freedom and full citizenship, with all ‘crimes’ scrubbed clean. A whole future in front of him… but the same goal in sight, the one he had when he enrolled in Command School. Make this place a bit less awful.
Not that he had any idea where to start.
The heavy weight in his other vest pocket reminded him of someone who might’ve had an idea of where to start. But she was gone, wasn’t she? Drifting off somewhere into the dream, likely. Busy doing the kinds of grand things Quinn could only aspire to. What use would she have for her silly little pocket phone, with those photographs on it, where she was now…
Well. She did say she’d be back for that phone, one way or another. In that case, Quinn had to do his damnedest to have something to show for the future she’d bought him.
With freedom in one pocket and love in the other, he walked right past the guards that had at one point cowed him into thinking he’d be better off being nobody. Today, he was Quinn Qureshi, and he was alive.
Not everyone was facing the future with a song in their heart.
Jack Hayes was facing the prospect of indexing and boxing up paper files going back as far as the Roosevelt administration. That’s all that remained for him… the cleaning-up of a secret government project, one which went nowhere fast. For all the fine data he’d collected over the past weeks, there was nothing really to show for it, was there? Now the facility was shutting down, a little bit at a time. All that remained were all the remains.
Where he went from here, he honestly had no idea. He had top secret clearance, so maybe they’d put him on some PsyOps project. The Department of Defense needed neuroscientists, right? Assuming they didn’t just have him shot to keep this ridiculous mess quiet, of course. That would be so appropriate, wouldn’t it…
Until the day they put a bullet in his head, he would plow through folder after folder, in his cramped little office. Nothing better to be doing with his life, really.
A knock on his open doorframe drew his attention. He had to stand, to see around the piles of paper.
A woman in a business suit three times more expensive than Jack’s entire wardrobe stepped in, extending a hand to shake. It was a firm handshake, indeed.
"I’d like all these files digitized immediately," she told him, without so much as a hello or a how-do-you-do. "It’s appalling that this project is still using legacy systems from before ENIAC was invented. We’re going completely paperless before the end of the year; I want a knowledge base built up of all the data collected across the entire lifespan of this project, and I’d prefer to have it yesterday. Next—"
"Who’re you?" Jack felt he should be asking, so he did.
As if annoyed that she had to waste her time on such a trivial question… the woman slipped him a business card.
"My grandfather’s responsible for the vaccine that turned these patients into dreamers," she said. "This entire project is my legacy. And now that the CDC’s shutting it down, I’ve bought the entire facility, lock stock and barrel."
"You… you can’t buy a secret government operation. You shouldn’t even know it exists…"
"Money talks. Money, and a burning need for the ultimate salvation of mankind," Janet Bates explained. "The government only saw immortality research; I see the possibility for the infinite expansion of mankind, beyond the boundaries of this dying Earth. Forget the dreamers. Wherever they went, it doesn’t matter. We have our own dreams to forge…"
She turned to leave the office, but decided to fill her new head researcher in on a few of those concerns first.
"By the next fiscal quarter, I want you and a hand-selected team working on creating a synthetic dreamer," she declared. "An artificial reality engine, if you will. We may not have my grandfather’s vaccine, but if we can duplicate the harmonics it generated within a machine, we won’t need a drug or a human host. We’ll have an infinite supply of unreal estate at our fingertips. For sale to the highest bidder, of course."
Jack nodded mutely, perplexed at this turn of events. Idly, he flipped the business card in his fingers… to read the name.
JANET BATES. CEO, REALWARE INCORPORATED.
High above the Metadream, the entity which decided to be Penelope Yates floated in a restful state.
She felt in tune with everything, now. A solid continuum, from dream to metadream to dreamer. They were all dreamers, in the end; not just the patients but everyone echoed within the dreams, everyone born within them as well. All equal, all connected souls. Even if they couldn’t see those connections or never felt them, they were all together in this existence. It was all so clear to Penelope, now… even if she was so very, very tired.
Doctor Bates was right; after drastically overextending herself, a little R&R was exactly what she needed. Never again would she be strong enough and in sync enough to do something like that stunt back on Earth. But… she’d have strength enough, in time, to try and give the other patients a lift up to where she was now.
And beyond the patients… her own City would need guidance, no doubt. A nudge here and there, not a push. Pushing wasn’t Lucid’s way; she could show the path, but they had to choose to walk it themselves. Most chose to walk towards the light, when their fears and insecurities didn’t get in the way.
Her City had quite a ways to go, before it could be the paradise it would be. Fortunately, her friends would take her example and pay it forward.
She felt some regret in leaving them. They knew she was out there, but she wasn’t alive anymore, not in a traditional sense. Penelope could choose to live again, one day; she’d been born from Lucid to Penelope on the eve of the new millennium, after all. No reason she couldn’t do that again, and likely should do so now and then, to remain in touch with the heart of humanity. But for now, she had to stay above it. So much to do…
Down below, within her dream, she could feel them move.
Within the Lucid Dreamer, Vivi was dancing. Even without the electronic ears of her counterpart, she felt the flow of the music through the hearts of her fellow dancers, became one with the gestalt of celebration that was her night club. Marcy was present, as well… isolated in her own little corner, painting a grand mural on the wall of the club. Always so distant, preferring the lone wolf life, but content and happy in her own right. Two sisters, happy to be together again after such a painful separation…
Miranda Walker was busy shouting things into a phone, well into the dark of night. The government was falling to bits, after the corruption that led to the Citadel takeover was shown in light of day. Walker was doing her best to keep it together, to make sure that at least emergency services were operating. She’d personally gone down to the streets to coordinate police efforts as the remnants of Salvager Gangs emerged from hiding to loot and pillage. A tough job, but if anybody was tough enough for it, it would be her.
She had help, as well: Hollister Avenue. He wasn’t officially back with the government, still a contractor, but he was acting as a universal ombudsman. When City Hall needed someone with the connections to put everything back on track, only one name came up on every single short list provided. Whatever you needed… the Avenue knew a guy who knew a guy, after all.
There was so much to do. New buildings had begun appearing, stranger than ever… crafted whole-cloth by Bedlam, to replace the flow of echoed buildings which ceased. The population continued to grow, but only through births, not through abductions from Earth. A time of change, where resources began to outpace the needs of the population. Plenty for everyone, now. A good start, for those in need…
And for those in need… the TroubleSolvers were open for business again. Kelsey Jones had studied well with Hollister, growing more and more adept at helping people with their problems. She had problems of her own, being a mother and a wife and a center of her community; at first she’d hid away in her little apartment, split away from the world, but that wouldn’t work anymore. She had to move with the chaos of this world. Fortunately, she knew a thing or two about chaos, and she had a loving husband in the form of Dave Smith. The two of them could keep each other moving forward, one step at a time.
The only one that Penelope no longer felt within her dream was the one she’d most wanted to return to. Part of her wanted a reassuring pat on the head and word of a job well done from her adoptive grandmother…
But Grandma’s House had been destroyed along with Memorial Stadium. And in her usual haunts within the metadream, only a note had been left behind.
I’ve paid my second price in full. It’s time for me to move on, towards wherever I will find my rest. Take care of the kids while I’m gone. -Scarlett
The ‘kids’ in question floating at Penelope’s side.
"I’m going to miss her," Milly spoke, lightly flickering with each word.
"She was pretty cool for an old-timer," Lucas agreed. "So what’s next, Penelope?"
…the Lucid child smiled brightly.
Before her were a million tiny lights, each one a soul within her dream. A dream within her dream. So many possibilities, so much potential. So many pitfalls as well, living a life amidst the twisted yet familiar…
If they were going to survive this, if they were going to stay alive and thrive, they’d need to learn to live in the City of Angles.
And Penelope would be there to help them along the path, forever and a day.
Now that you’ve finished reading the entire City of Angles saga… what will you do? Well, if I may offer some suggestions, you could…
- Purchase some City of Angles books, with added bonus material including extra stories! The vol//003 book is now available, including a bonus story that takes place 12 years after the finale!
- Read my next writing project, Floating Point, a cyberpunk web novel. Or read some of my related stories, such as Anachronauts or Unreal Estate! (Learn more about RealWare and the multiverse!)
- Follow me on social media (Twitter / Facebook / Tumblr / Blog Update Mailing List) to find out when the vol//003 book is out and what my next project will be!
- Volunteer at a local Habitat for Humanity project, to help someone else find hope in an uncertain world.