Alex wasn’t entirely certain about what she had seen. The broad physique of an extraterrestrial being glowed brightly in a deep pool of darkness that swept in from amongst the clouds. Her eyes twitched in response. She felt its heat sink into the surface of her skin.
She began gibbering. Her hands were shaking.
“What do you want?” she stuttered.
It stared at her for a long moment, taking in her every movement and expression like a sponge freshly dipped into water. Its hands were balled into fists. But it had no eyes – no features that it could use to sense any of these things. Rather, its structure possessed the night sky – the stars, the milky way galaxy; it had long, slender arms that were out of proportion with the rest of its body.
The sound: a low, constant hum, similar to the that of the spiral.
The snow was really falling now. But the radiant aura of this creature – if you could even call it that – kept her warm. At that moment, her black jacket felt even tighter. So tight, in fact, that she eventually had to gasp for air.
Her shadow stretched far behind her like a long patch of night, at least five times larger than it should have been.
“Please,” she said, crying, “let me –”
The cosmic being turned its attention from her to the cyan vortex. It raised its left arm and opened its palm to face the spiral.
A few seconds went by, then minutes. Its humming stopped.
She was confused, still gibbering in fear. She looked down for a moment to wipe her tears and remembered something that Phoenix had told her not too long ago, “I think I’ve found out where everyone went off to.”
“No,” cried Alex. “Not me, too.”
She understood now. Things were finally beginning to make sense. And the celestial knew this.
It turned its head towards Alex once again, slowly.
“Not me, too,” she said. “Please!”
For a moment – just one moment – the celestial looked as though it expressed an emotion. It reminded her of her father. ‘Sadness’ would be the word she would have used to best describe it. An emotion so gentle that even silence could hear its cry. So she stayed there in a crouch. Eventually she stopped gibbering. Then she stopped crying.
She had almost told it to spare her but decided to keep her mouth shut. She just kept . . . staring. This being was so fascinating and terrifying to her at the same time. Alex just couldn’t explain it. She was afraid it might take her into the spiral with the rest of the lost souls. She indeed did know where her father had gone. Along with just about twenty per cent of the world population. But something inside her told her that this being had a purpose to fulfil . . . as if it were doing this for the greater good.
The creature began humming again, this time louder than before.
She could almost hear it say something:
– x!” said Phoenix, shaking her body back into consciousness. She had fainted onto the sidewalk, her body pushed up against the lamppost.
“What?” she stuttered weakly. “Huh?”
After a few seconds her eyes shot open. But she was still confused. Did any of that happen?
The truth was that it didn’t matter.
A sharp, thin snowstorm was falling over the city when Phoenix helped her to her feet. He then proceeded to do a series of tests to make sure she was able to walk. One after another until . . .
“I’m not crippled!” said Alex. “I can walk just fine!”
The cold look in Alex’s eyes had returned again.
“Aight, aight, okay!” said Phoenix. “You just fainted and hit your head against a lamppost. Forgive me!”
“Yeah,” said Alex, “and you’re a moron. Now what is it you wanted to do?”
It was unclear to her whether or not they had an argument, or if a helicopter lifted off into the stratosphere.
“Wait . . .” said Alex. “Did a helicopter just . . .?”
Phoenix stared at her with a sarcastic grin. “Did a helicopter just what? Go on.”
But she didn’t have to say much; the entire event happened all over again. The helicopter levitated out from The Spire and headed into the ozone layer. Phoenix knew this was about to happen already. He’d seen this occur for the past few days at the exact same time every morning, but it had struck him as a complete surprise when Alex found out about it. She wasn’t the type to go investigating, he thought.
“You knew about this?” said Phoenix. “So . . . you’ve been looking, too, huh?”
“I –” – don’t know – “I’m not sure,” she said aloud.
As the cyberpunk facade of The Spire came into view with its mighty blue gleam, Phoenix smiled to himself. He was glad she had taken as much interest in The Spire as he did. The past few hours, to him, were strange, to say the least. One of the benefits of having a friend that knew as much as he did was that he could determine a clear and thought-out plan before trying to get into the building. He knew he had someone to help him there, too. More than someone, actually.
“You know what we have to do, right?” said Phoenix.
“What do you mean?” she said, her voice soft like a feather in the ocean breeze.
Snow flew by their bodies like a fusillade on its way to a warzone. She treasured this moment. It reminded her of the days where she could meet up with Andy and Phoenix – those early moments of the week in the Retrove Centre. She thought often about those days. She wondered dolefully about how quickly those days and moments had changed. They were memories.
She was a little timider now, a little thinner at the cheeks, perhaps a little scattier, but she was still the same old tomboy that Phoenix loved to hang around.
The quirk that frightened Phoenix most – perhaps because he was afraid that it might happen to him – was her haziness. Sometimes Phoenix thought she was lost in her own mind. Her demeanour was wrought with confusion and abandonment. Like a stray dog, she looked as though she was always lost. Alone.
Phoenix snapped his head back towards the spiral. He raised his hand and pointed towards it, then at The Spire. “That’s the key.”
“What is? The Spire?” she said, somewhat dazed.
“Yes,” he breathed. “We ain’t got a lot of time before we join the next ‘Missing Persons’ list. We gotta act fast. Remember what I said before? If these are aliens, then we better find a way to get all this shit back to the way things were.”
“You mean . . .?”
“We get the alien out of there unless it’s already dead. But what other choice do we have?”
Alex questioned the reality of his decisionmaking. “If some cosmic beings from another world can’t get the alien back, what chance do we have?”
“Ah-ha!” Phoenix said optimistically. He ruffled through his pockets, pulling out his phone. He spent some seconds searching on it, saying things like “One second,” and “Hol’ up!”
“We have this!” Phoenix showed her a familiar video – the alien dissection. “The difference between us and these potential aliens: we know where it is.”
“Yeah?” said Alex. “Where’s that?”
“Ground level,” said Phoenix. “You see, there’s no blue glow or anything; it’s grey and dark. Kinda like a basement. The table looks familiar, doesn’t it? It’s an operation cot.”
“So?” said Alex.
“So . . . they use the same cots at the hospital. This is The Spire!”
The sudden realisation had plunged Alex into a bout of surprise – not that Phoenix would notice.
She furrowed her brow. “So how do you plan to infiltrate a fuckin military-base-lookin sphere?”
“Easy,” said Phoenix. “We’ll have help.”
Alex was about to respond when something caught her eye: a headlight winding its way up the road towards the intersection. The sound of an old engine buzzed past them on the sea breeze. Its hood was covered with snow.
She had forgotten it was snowing until she had seen that car. Suddenly she felt cold.
“Who?” she said, shivering.
“Andy,” he said. “And maybe Gecko.”
“But he lives all the way in Orlando?” Her eyes twinkled.
“Yeah, but he’s smart,” Phoenix said. “I remember he said he learned how to hack when he was only thirteen. Imagine now.”
“And what if we do do this? What does that make us? Criminals?” she said.
“It makes us heroes,” Phoenix said.
She gave him a look that said: “This guy really is a maniac.”