Willow followed Rotnem/Ilana into the Metropolis park dome, the system registering them both and a message flashed in front of her.
*All BASE functions like AR and social contacts are disabled after this point.*
Even if she wanted to contact anyone, she couldn’t. That was a scary thought.
On the other hand, it would be hard to spy on them through the BASE system here. Someone had to actually get really close to them if they wanted to listen in on what they were saying. It made for a pretty safe place to meet up if you didn’t want people to overhear you.
And who would look twice at two young women meeting up in the Metropolis Dome?
“What is your favourite season?” Rotnem/Ilana turned to Willow, taking off her hoodie and revealing a woman who probably wouldn’t stand out in the corporate culture.
Willow thought for a moment. “Summer.” It wasn’t technically her favourite season, but the summer area in the dome was one of the best ones. It had a sloping hill and projected mountains and fields around the outside. It was calm and beautiful.
“Good choice.” Rotnem/Ilana smiled. “I could use some warmth right about now.” She nodded to one of the hallways deeper into the building. “Let’s go there so we can talk.” She started walking again and Willow followed her.
Willow felt so small, so young, so unknowing next to Rotnem/Ilana. The woman looked like she really knew things, like she’d been out there in the world and knew everything about it, while Willow had been locked in her bubble all this time.
But then she remembered the way Ilana could make her whole avatar in DoE disappear into nothing and she got a little nervous.
Rotnem/Ilana opened the door to the summer area and they stepped inside. R/I grabbed a picnic basket and a blanket from next to the door and walked on, going up the slope. Then she looked around.
“Where would you like to sit?” She seemed genuinely interested in making Willow feel comfortable.
Willow pointed to the top of the hill, next to a tree, the area covered in flowers.
R/I walked to it and put the basket and her briefcase down before spreading the blanket out. Then she took her shoes off and sat down on the blanket, looking up at Willow. “Are you joining me?”
Willow nodded, taking off her own shoes and sitting down too, on the other side of the blanket from R/I.
R/I looked at her hands. “I know that you have no reason to trust me. I know that there are many reasons as to why you shouldn’t trust me at all, but I’m here because I need you. I need your skills.”
“Why? I’m just an autistic girl with no future.”
R/I jolted a little, looking up, her eyes filled with some pain that Willow didn’t know how to understand. “Don’t think of yourself like that. Please... Don’t. Just because you’re different doesn’t mean you’re broken or bad.”
Willow didn’t know what to say. R/I’s words touched something inside her. Something she’d always been trying to squash. “Why me?”
“Do you know how many people can program in C++ in this world?” R/I opened her briefcase, pulling out some papers and pens.
“No idea.” Why would she? There had never been a reason to question it.
“I know you can.” R/I looked up. “And I can count the others in this country on one hand. At least the ones I know of, there may be some underground hackers who can, but just the ones that are known and in some cases registered… Very few. There will be more in the whole wide world, but people who can actually program in C++ are rare.” She spread the papers out between them. “Take a look.”
R/I had spread pages and pages of code between them. It was written in C++ and she quickly recognised the code and variables for things like settings for the BASE platform that influenced AR opacity for menus or how the BASE platform connected with a social media application for sending messages back and forth. They were just small pieces of code, nothing major.
But as her eyes fell on a different page, she stopped and got a bad feeling in her stomach. The code didn’t look like the rest of the official code of the BASE platform, it looked off.
She picked up the page.
It was a code sequence that let a program read out someone’s personal ID, but something wasn’t right with it. It wasn’t meant for the BASE platform mainframe, it was meant for some other program. A program which likely wasn’t supposed to use those variables…
“What is this?” She held out the page to R/I.
“That’s why I need you.” R/I took the page, looking troubled. “I found this piece of code in a program that shouldn’t have it.” Then she looked up for a moment. “I know that you saw the ‘blitzed’ avatar in DoE.”
“How?” There it was again, this knowing things about her that nobody else was supposed to know.
R/I closed her eyes for a moment. “I was there. I saw you come into the area. I know that that boy showed you his memory. I was there when it happened.” Her eyes were filled with pain, her voice rough. “I saw the avatar go down, I saw him get blitzed. And when you came into the area... I knew it was meant to be.”
“Who are you?” Willow now really had to know, she couldn’t keep doing this without knowing the identity of who was asking for her help.
R/I licked her lips. “I’m Soleil. We’ve met once before. Just once.”
“When?” Why would she remember meeting Soleil? But more importantly, why would Soleil remember her?
“You were young, you came to work with your father. I was an intern back then. A ‘child genius’ working at BASE, in the same department as your father. He taught me a lot, but I was soon moved onto other departments where my skills were better suited to the work they were doing there. At least, that is what they kept telling me.”
Soleil? Willow could remember something about going to work with her dad once, but it was mostly a blur. The place had been way too busy for her to feel comfortable.
“You had your first try at coding while you were sitting in my lap, behind my computer, and pecking at the keys. You loved it. I’ve kept my eyes on you ever since. Your hyperfocus as you were learning a new skill, it intrigued me. And...” Soleil shrugged. “I was on the boards you frequented when you were learning to code, I saw it all.”
“Why?” This sounded insane. Yeah. Definitely sounded insane. “Why would you?”
“Autism doesn’t have to be bad. I wish I could have shown you that when you were little, when you were growing up.” Were those tears in Soleil’s eyes? She met Willow’s eyes fully, but then looked away. “I’m autistic. It’s not in my medical files, my parents were very careful to keep that out of my files. But I still am. I’m no ‘child genius’, I’ve just got an obsessive knowledge of some programming languages. And when I saw you first, I knew that you were like me. I knew it.”
“I don’t get it. Why would you...” Something bubbled up inside her and she didn’t know how to handle it. Her hands started to shake and she had to do something with them.
“Here.” Soleil handed her a small toy. It had different types of fabrics and surfaces and Willow’s fingers automatically found the smooth ribbon and ran it through her fingers. Then she found the spot with a fluffy surface and ran the top of her hand over it.
“Why didn’t you say anything? Why didn’t you tell me who you were?”
“I didn’t want to involve you in things if I didn’t have to. It’s not safe. But bad things are happening right now and I can’t do this on my own. I need your help. I need you.”
“I need you to go into Helheim Fallen and find out what happens to the people who ‘disappear’. I need someone on the inside who can help out.” Soleil looked desperate now. “I can’t do this on my own, and I need someone on my side. I need someone who also knows about what I’m doing. Who also takes the missing people seriously.”
“Violet got a beta key to Helheim Fallen and I can’t reach her anymore. Her BASE account seems like it’s almost fully gone or something.” Willow felt a panic come on, but she also felt a certain calm come over her. Maybe she could really save Violet?
“I know.” Soleil nodded. “It’s the same as the other people who’ve gone missing. This is the same every time. They go in and suddenly their account disappears. I think they get blitzed when they’re in there.”
“And you want to send me in there? You want me to get in danger for some idea you have about how to fix this?” Willow wasn’t entirely sure that she understood it right.
“Basically, yes. But you’re not going in without protection. If you decide to do this, I will give you an item that lets you control the world like a game developer can. It will let you strip back the VR and get right into the code behind it. You can see exactly what happens at any time.” Soleil sounded like she was so sure this would actually work.
“How sure are you that this is safe? How sure are you that Violet disappearing and the blitzing and account disappearances are connected?” Willow wasn’t entirely sure herself.
“One-hundred percent.” Soleil looked at her with a steady gaze. “I know they are, I just don’t know how or why. Or how the victims are chosen.”
“And you want my help to figure it out?” Willow still felt like this was too much like a weird joke or a dream or something.
“Yes.” Soleil nodded. “You don’t have to decide right now. You can think it over. But I really need your help, it would really help me out.”
Willow nodded. “I’ll have to think about it for a moment.”
“Of course.” Soleil nodded, then handed her an envelope. “The information on how to contact me is in here. Plus some extra things. Please consider this carefully. There are risks to this, I can’t deny that, but there are people going missing and I think you can help out trying to find them back.”
Willow accepted the envelope, it was pretty heavy.
She didn’t know if she could trust Soleil yet. She could just be lying to make Willow trust her. But after the story Soleil told, she remembered the moment she talked about. She remembered sitting behind that computer. It was how she got so interested in learning how to code in the first place. It was how her interest in it really got started.
But was that enough to risk everything? As far as she knew, if she got blitzed herself, she would basically be wiped from this world. She would stop existing in the way she’d always known.
Was that risk worth it?
Willow closed the door to her apartment behind her, locking the icy weather outside as she took her jacket off. It had started to rain as she walked through the garden and it had made everything feel even more surreal. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been outside while it was raining. It felt strange.
Her delivery box was still showing that she had a delivery and as she walked over to it, she saw a huge box inside. Probably her father’s computer.
Knowing how she got into coding and why she got so interested in it now felt different. After meeting Soleil, after talking to her some more, she realised that Soleil was nice and very caring. Willow had started coding to feel closer to her father, but that hadn’t worked out the way she’d always hoped for it to do. But incidentally, she actually made friends through it anyway, friends she didn’t even know she had. People who had always been there for her even if she didn’t know it.
People like Soleil.
Willow pulled the big box out of the delivery box, slowly pushing it to her table, looking it over. She didn’t remember the thing to be this heavy.
Then something dark blue caught her eye. A dark blue square in front of the delivery box. It must have fallen out as she took the big box out.
She went over to it, picking it up.
On the front of the note was one word, ‘Mebugi’.
Willow’s heart started beating loudly. Mebugi. That was what Violet had called them. Mebugi, metal bubble girls.
Then she realised two things.
Firstly, there was only one other person who knew about that conversation, Violet.
Secondly, this note wasn’t addressed to anyone. It just had that one word on it. That meant that Violet had dropped this note into her delivery box by hand.
Violet was here. Violet was here and had left her a note.
Violet was nearby!
And she was alive.