The following day
Alex Ramiro sat alone on her gaming chair at about three o’clock in the afternoon, headphones wrapped around her hair. Her room was cluttered with bedclothes of every colour and old books that she sometimes read in bulk. The sun glittered off the mirror of her wardrobe and cast a diffused golden light throughout her room. She could feel its heat on her cheeks.
The walls were painted over with indigo and held various posters of musical artists. The first was a picture of Billie Eilish at seventeen; she kept it above the floral pillows and headboard of her bed. That was her favourite. The others were boy bands she used to enjoy about four years ago. If it weren't for her carmine drapes that touched the carpet of her room, she’d hardly have been sitting so close to the window (the light sometimes blinded her eyes).
Alex had been on her gaming PC since about 11:00 A.M.
She sighed to herself as she turned to look out across the cityscape. So much had happened in the past few days that even her seemingly endless humour couldn’t cover it up. Some of it was good. All through the day she’d been talking with her friends over Discord. That’s what she did on most days. She knew it was almost sad that she spent a lot of her free time inside. But on those days where she was allowed to meet up with her friends, Andy and Phoenix, the wind pushing her short hair back, she’d lavish in joy.
Her face was bright now. There was a continuous playlist of EDM playing in the background. On her desk there was a half-empty can of Diet Coca Cola with a straw in it, a glowing keyboard and mouse, a crumpled piece of tissue paper that she had recently used to wipe her nose, and her monitor.
“I just don’t think they’d actually show something like that if it did exist,” Alex told Gecko online.
“Hm,” he agreed. “And based on the reports of NASA and the government, it’s likely the case that they’re trying to direct our attention away from something much more serious. Possibly an attack. If you think about it, why would they be so light-hearted about a flying saucer if their entire existence is based around searching for extraterrestrial life? Seems kinda sketchy—”
“Yeah,” Alex added. You must have big lungs.
“—and if it is an attack then another World War will break out because of the current economic crises in the southern and western regions—pretty much every region nowadays. And have you noticed that they wrote ′near future!′ at the end? That seems like a hint towards more mysterious images that will definitely arrive. Expect them to post more shit like this.”
Alex took a sip from her Diet Coca Cola and smiled, revealing her blue braces. “Dude, how do you manage to say everything in one breath?”
He laughed. “There’s a reason I am able to bullshit my way out of answering questions in class: by speaking nonstop for five minutes straight.”
Then, a knock, loud enough for her to rip off her headphones. A voice squeezed through the mahogany—“Alex, lunch is ready.” Her father.
“Coming!” Alex looked over at the door and then back at her computer screen. “I have to go now. I’ll be back around—I don’t know—like six or so.”
“Hm,” Gecko said. “Enjoy y’all’s white people food. Ya boy gonna make some Mac n Cheese and then take a long shit.”
She laughed and said, “See ya.”
There followed a brief silence, and then a notification on Discord from a familiar face—the duck with glasses. It was Phoenix—when are u going out tod—
Pockets of thick, cerulean mist drifted over the park of Sugarplum Boulevard as Phoenix stood at the top of a virtual vert ramp, his hover-board jammed under his left arm. With its blue lights poking beams through the VR Centre, a drone hummed across the electronic walls—poles of purple stretching from one end of the centre to the other—a row of pillars aligned against the back walls with a sign stencilled at the top: Retrove Centre.
He held his phone with a violet key card underneath.
On the approach to the starting line, where four other people waited in their outfits that looked like alien uniforms out of sci-fi movies, Phoenix looked away from his phone, stuffed it in his pocket, and threw on his helmet that resembled Master Chief from the Halo series.
“Okay,” a voice echoed throughout the centre like God himself.“Ladies and gentlemen, prepare your boards!”
Phoenix dropped his hover-board and switched it on by swiping the key card through the middle. A strong downdraught circled at the bottom of the board with a loud hum. His view of the building was both fascinating and ethereal.
Hadn’t this place been constructed in the early days of Violetwall? He couldn’t honestly remember. By then he had already begun dreaming about a new place to live. Phoenix was only a teenager, and even at the age that sometimes crushed people’s dreams, he—since he was five—wanted to travel the cosmos. He believed the UFO was real, that was the truth. He hoped the UFO was real—hoped he could see it one day—hoped he would get the chance to shake hands with the inventor and use it to explore the universe. And getting a new life . . . it had apparently been a major operation for him, but his parents had seemed to take it purely as an act of insanity.
Sometimes he often believed that himself.
The voice echoed, “Get ready! Set! . . . GO!”
The lights of the centre darkened and divulged a black hall with lines of red passing through the ground floor like Tron. Phoenix quickly levitated a couple of inches off the floor and zooooomed down the vert ramp. The others did so as well. He could feel the air push against his body as he gained control of his momentum.
The first phase of the race was just beginning, and when it did, he could see the red lines of the track mould into a snake run. His sharp eyes caught it unfold and he immediately brushed past his opponents, taking the lead. There was a tree outlined in red, stairsets that travelled along the darkness, and a full pipe inching its way towards him in the distance.
Repetitive retro music beat in the background.
In one quick motion, with his arms stretched out for balance, Phoenix hopped on the bar of the stairset and skidded along it. From his view, he could see a points system in the top left corner of his virtual helmet—1st: 2936p—a time system that would count upwards as well—41 SECONDS—and a voice responding to the feat, God’s voice: “Wicked!”
“Here we go.” Phoenix’s voice sounded as if it had been modulated. A deep sound that bore a resemblance to interviewees who preferred to keep their anonymity.
He jumped off the bar with a perfect landing and looked at the upcoming full pipe. His ears snatched something. Was that a snap below his feet? He stiffened. Something was wrong down there but he didn’t have time to look. He reached the full pipe and swirled through the centre like a whirlpool. He followed the sound of the rhythmic beat through the pipe. Then, another noise: SNAP!
His hover-board gave in to the pressure of his feet and broke. He stumbled during his third circle around the pipe and fell to the bottom and hit his helmet off the floor. He felt no pain, but fumbled for his hover-board until the arcade eventually unveiled itself—the Retrove sign was back and the pockets of blue mist returned. He was back in the centre. He could still hear the beat in the background of his helmet along with numbered whooshes passing by his ears. The other players. Those, and a sound that would probably annoy him for an hour or so: his inner-voice telling him: Dumbass!
An employee from the Retrove walked over to him after about a minute. “You might want to buy a new board, kid.”
Yeah, and you might want to get a new job!—“I know,” Phoenix said. “It just broke for no reason.”
He got a good look at the employee. He had long brown hair that fell over his eyes and touched the bottom of his chin, an expression that reminded him of those kids who sat at the back of the class and complained about everything, and skin that looked as though it had a mutually positive relationship with acne cream. His tag: Scott.
“C’mon.” Scott extended his arm to help Phoenix up. “I should probably preface this by saying that if you have any more than two accidents here, you’ll be suspended for three months. Not just for your safety but for the jeopardy of the game as well. Parents phoning in and whatnot.”
After a couple of minutes, Phoenix picked up his broken board and headed outside the building. He could feel the strengthening wind push against his face. The sun glimmered off the smooth ground and shone a crystallised light across the city. He looked up at The Spire in the distance, its beautiful glass body surrounded by cumulus clouds and a clear blue sky—drones that flew overhead and buildings that reclined alongside it. And when he did, he felt a short vibration in his pocket. His phone. He pulled it out of his pocket and checked the time: 3:46 P.M, and saw a notification from Sentinel on Discord.
Andy, Phoenix thought.
And the text: It’s real.