Katherine slipped on a long suit jacket with silver bottom jeans and headed for the crossing between Sugarplum Boulevard and West Ample Street. When she left her house, she had one thing on her mind: finding her husband. So she decided to catch a bus to the nearest police station to submit a report of his disappearance.
Carlos had taken the car with him on the night of his absence. But Katherine was well able to drive (she had gotten her driver’s license at the age of sixteen), and she hated taking public transportation. A lot of individuals in the city of Violetwall did. It was too compact and cluttered. Then there was the hygiene problem. It had apparently become a major issue for Katherine; people smelt of old construction sites and run-down locker rooms. There was simply no way she could take the bus . . . not until today.
Brushing her hair back over her shoulder, she passed the West Ample Street commercial area and arrived at a bus stop at around eleven o’clock. When she got there, an unsanitary stench met with her nostrils. It smelt of cigarettes and ethyl mixed into one.
Katherine took in her surroundings. Directly across from her, where the bus station stood, an imposing edifice stretched about three-hundred feet skywards. It had a tall lightning conductor poking out from the roof. Buildings of similar structure continued down the street, eventually beginning to taper off around the community park. Atop a grand lamppost on the opposite side of the road sat a siren, perched against the light. It was mostly used for emergencies or important announcements.
There were a lot of bums on the streets, and Katherine wasn’t one to stop at her heels and pass them change. She instead found contentment in avoiding them as best she could. There were far too many for her to count; around every fast-food restaurant, apartment complex, in the alleyways, between avenues of home districts; they were everywhere. And it was clear that she wanted nothing to do with them.
The high-rise buildings looked like long pillars with shiny, colourful windows, flashing up winks of sun on the skyline. Deep rays of shadows pooled into the back walls of noticeably smaller buildings and cast glints of darkness over the streets below.
Already she could feel the energising beams of the sun, that marvellous warmth that she found comfort in on stressful days. The weather was indeed quite strange to Katherine; the sun was out, but there were little drops of ice crystals falling from beneath the clouds. Slowly, they went floating through the outskirts of West Ample Street with one great, big gust.
The bus stop reminded her of the older days of Violetwall – back when Carlos reminisced about his childhood and when Alex was a naive youngster. Carlos had hair back then, but after a couple of decades, he lost it to the inevitable curse of male-pattern baldness. Nonetheless, the bus stop was a nostalgic pocket dimension; the people that waited there were actually . . . quite normal-looking. They definitely didn’t look like bums. That was for sure.
There were two of them. The first was a man draped in a black trench coat with a puffy scarf. He was chatting to someone on his phone. The other was a woman anxiously fidgeting with her fingers on the bench.
It was a crisp and wintry dawn, and the glass covering of the bus stop whitened with snow.
Katherine had been daydreaming of her husband, trapped within the realm that she had experienced earlier that morning. She just couldn’t get over how bizarre the experience actually was. It certainly didn’t feel like any dream she’d had before. It was far too realistic for those.
I hope they find him soon. He can’t be lost, right?
People around the world asked themselves the same question. How far did these missing people go? And how far would their loved ones travel to reach them?
Andy received a call on Discord on the afternoon of the same day. It was Phoenix.
Andy was lying on his bed with his back perched against the headboard, browsing his laptop for information about the cyan vortex and The Spire. His room was dim, and he kept his curtains shut.
“‘An anomaly in the ozone layer,’”Andy told Phoenix over the phone, scrolling onto an article with his left hand. “Strictly speaking, there is no evidence of these so-called ‘aliens’. And nobody’s said anything about them online. Not yet anyway.”
“As for The Spire,” Andy said, visiting their website online, “they’re operating under code-red conditions. That’s what it says here anyway. They haven’t said anything about aliens either.”
“What about the helicopters?” said Phoenix.
Andy hit CTRL-F on his keyboard and typed in: H-E-L-I-C –
“Nope,” Andy said.
“Shit,” Phoenix said. His voice sounded slightly different over the phone. It was more muffled and low-pitched. “Have you told Gecko yet? I’ve sent him a message but he hasn’t responded to me.”
“Told him what?”
“Bruh,” Phoenix said. “You literally couldn’t be dumber, G. Told him about our plan.”
“Ah.” Andy clicked away from the site and opened up Discord. The last message from Gecko was: those be some famous last words, B. And that was a few days ago. He’d heard nothing since. “Nah, he hasn’t been online for a few days. Might be busy with schoolwork. I also forgot to message him.”
Andy typed: you there?
“That dude always pullin a disappearing act,” said Phoenix.
“Can you go over the plan again? You were laggin out the last time.”
Phoenix sighed. There followed a brief silence. “This the last time I’m gon’ say this.”
Andy clicked back on The Spire’s website again.
“First, before anything else, we see if we can get Gecko to hack into the base and disable the cameras. Then we can sneak in and out. Maybe he could cut the lights, too.” Phoenix sounded nerdier than usual. “If Gecko is still offline, or doesn’t want to help out, we have to take a stealthier approach. In which I advise Plan B: we employ some, uh . . . some equipment.”
“What equipment?” said Andy.
“I’m not sure what they’re called, but I know what they look like. They can make us disappear from reality and reappear after a few minutes. I can’t remember their name, like I said, but they’re basically these little microchips that engineers and electricians use when trying to get to tough spots during construction. They make for easy movement.”
“I think I know what you’re talking about,” Andy told Phoenix. “Where do we get them?”
There was a small silence, and then it was broken by Phoenix’s voice: “That’s . . . the problem. The only place that I know has them for sure is the Retrove Centre. It’s a part of the Virtual Reality games.”
“So . . . what you’re saying is . . .” Andy said.
“We have to steal them from the Retrove Centre. Yes.”
“And how do you plan to do that, Schizo?” Andy said, biting his shirt. “We’ll be arrested. And you don’t even know where they are.”
“Ayo, bruh, give me some time to figure that out. Gecko will prolly help us anyway. And yes I do. They’re in the helmets at the VR Centre. They keep them locked in a black storage unit. But the place is closed. A lot of places are.”
Breaking the law definitely wasn’t on Andy’s bucket list.
“And if he doesn’t? If Gecko doesn’t help?” Andy asked as he fiddled with his fingers.
The truth was that Andy had a lot to lose, at least he thought so; his parents, his public image, his family’s image. This was an awful lot to put on the line. Even though he technically was just a teenager.
“Well then,” Phoenix said, “we bust the alien out of there. We steal the helmets with the microchips, turn them on, and sneak inside. On the night the fridge almost fell on us, way back when, there were cars passing over us on the highway. I think it was almost eleven then because you wanted to go home before twelve. Anyway, those cars shouldn’t have been out that late; they were likely military vehicles going towards The Spire. So that’s when we strike. We sneak in with the microchips, make sure to avoid making contact with anyone because it can fuck with the visors.
“Then we head for the ground-level of the building. It’s likely in the basement based on what the video footage showed us, you know, the one Gecko sent us of an alien dissection. And once we do that, the hardest part is getting the alien out of there.”
Phoenix was quiet for a moment.
“And how do you plan to do that?” Andy said with inquisitive thought. “Ask them politely to let us go?”
“No,” said Phoenix. “One of us will have to cause a distraction.”
More silence, enough for Andy to realise the answer.
“No . . .” Andy said. “Nah, I ain’t doin that.”
“I don’t trust Alex enough to do it,” Phoenix said with a guilty tone. “She’s been actin strange lately. You tend to be good with this type of stuff.”
“So how am I supposed to get out?”
“With the visor. You’ll just have to avoid as many of them as you possibly can.”
Andy stared up at his ceiling, his lips curving into a worried expression. Did he really want to do this? No. Did he have to? Perhaps.
One long and brooding silence followed.
He said, “Fine. I’ll do it. But you owe me for a lifetime, bruh.”
“Ay!” Phoenix said. “That’s my G! ADHD Andy, back in business!”
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