Willow walked over to her delivery box, wondering why her BASE notifications weren’t getting through in HF, when she saw that one of the chats required her attention, the low red glow pulling her attention. She opened the chat as she took the box with her dinner from the delivery box and put it down on the table.
Sage: Willow, where are you? Are you here?
Sage: Hey, where are you, Willow?
Her heart started beating faster, was there something wrong?
Willow: I’m here, what’s going on?
She kept her eyes on the chat as she opened the dinner box and found some rice, curry and grilled vegetables. Not exciting, but the curries were usually pretty nice in flavour.
Sage: Where were you? You’ve been gone all day.
Willow: Just playing a game. What’s going on?
Sage: You’re okay?
Willow: Yeah, I’m okay. Just tired and hungry.
Juniper: You gave us a scare, you didn’t reply and with Violet…
Willow nodded, though she knew they couldn’t see it. She’d been playing HF all day while she’d asked her friends to look for blitzed accounts in DoE. She asked them to do such a scary task and then she went radio silent for hours on end.
Willow: Sorry. Are you okay? Anything going on?
Juniper: Not much. Been keeping an eye on the game and the forums but there isn’t much chat about anything.
Sage: We finished the boat, though.
Now Willow really felt bad. The guild needed her for that, both her and Violet, and she’d totally flunked out on helping out in the last days.
Willow: Sorry I didn’t help more.
Juniper: You’ve got more important things on your mind. We know. It’s okay.
Sage: Yeah, it’s okay. Just wanted you to know, so you can come check it out any time.
She was going to have to, she couldn’t just dump this all on her friends. They’d been playing together for years, they’d worked so hard to get to the stage where they could do things like making guild boats. And now she was failing them, like she was failing Violet and Soleil too.
She started eating, not sure what else to tell her friends. She’d been playing HF all day and was no step closer to figuring out what had happened, what was really going on in the game, why the people went missing. She was no use, she really was no use to anyone.
A lump formed in her throat as she closed her eyes. Why did she think she could do this? She’d been enjoying herself today, playing with a new person in a new game, while her friends were waiting for her return. She was supposed to be focused on saving Violet and finding out what happened there. But all she’d done was play videogames and enjoying herself...
This wasn’t right. It really wasn’t.
The side of her view started colouring green, shaking a little, signalling she got an incoming call. She switched her attention to it and ‘Rotnem’ came into view. Soleil? Why was she calling?
Willow picked up, her heart beating fast again. “Yes?”
“Willow.” Soleil sounded off, though she couldn’t exactly figure out how.
“Soleil?” What was going on?
“Yeah. Good. I was afraid you’d be asleep already. I just—” Her voice was rushed, but then she stopped.
“What’s wrong?” Soleil knew not to call and Willow knew that Soleil also hated calling.
“Can we meet?”
“Now?” It was the middle of the night, that wasn’t really a time to meet up normally.
“Yeah. I can get you out of there. Just... I think we need to meet up right now.” There was something to Soleil’s voice that Willow really wanted to place, but the only thing she could think of was a combination of panic and determination.
Because of where she lived, and her age, Willow couldn’t get out of the garden of the ‘low sensory’ building after ten in the evening. Not that she normally would want to, she’d barely been out of here during the day since she moved in, let alone in the evenings, that just wasn’t her thing.
“It’s not just the getting out of here... My BASE notifications are going to complain about me staying up too late soon.” And if it started to do that, it would notify the people in charge of here and then they’d call her in for one of the examinations and everything. It had happened before when she’d been ignoring the notifications a little too much while grinding a new raid with the guild. She didn’t want to have to do that again.
“That’s no problem either. You’re talking to someone in charge of those notifications.” There almost sounded something like a enjoyment in Soleil’s voice. “I can override all of them. Don’t worry. We just... need to talk.”
“Okay.” It sounded urgent enough and she knew that they couldn’t openly talk about what they were doing while using the BASE system. “Where do you want to meet?”
“At the gate? And as soon as you can get dressed?”
“What?” Willow stood up, going over to one of the windows at the front of the building, but after she unlocked the regular window view, she couldn’t see anyone at the gate.
“Don’t try to look.” It was like Soleil knew what she would do. “I’m not standing in view. Just, come over to the gate, yeah? I’ll get us out of here.”
“Okay. I’ll be right down.” She disconnected the call and then looked over to her dinner. She was still hungry... But maybe she should get dressed properly first, that was kind of more important here.
What was going on with Soleil? And why did Willow have a bad feeling about this? Why did she have a bad feeling about this meeting or trip or whatever Soleil was doing?
Willow carefully took another spoonful out of the bowl as she walked over the grounds surrounding her building. She figured that since the stuff came in bowls and everything anyway, that she could just as easily take it as a to-go meal, especially since it was cold by now. She walked over to the gate, still not seeing anyone there.
Then someone stepped out of the shadows. Soleil! She waved her to come closer to the gate and Willow did so.
“Eating?” Soleil looked at the bowl in her hands.
“Accidentally skipped dinner.” Willow shrugged. “How are you getting me out of here?”
“That’s no problem.” Soleil stepped closer to the console next to the gate and after a couple of moments, it opened, and she came through it.
A memory popped up in Willow’s head, something from earlier this week. “Hey, were you here at like four in the morning a couple of days back?”
“No.” Soleil frowned. “Did you see someone?”
“Yeah.” Willow shook her head, it had probably been nothing anyway. But there had been something strange about the person, like they had been purposefully looking for her there. “Yeah... Never mind. You were here for a reason, I presume?”
“Yep.” Soleil sighed and held out a manual device towards Willow. “Going to change a few bits of code, just a moment.”
Willow waited, still eating the curry. There wasn’t much she could do otherwise.
Then Soleil stepped back. “Okay, check your coded thingie. What do the notifications say?”
Coded thingie? One, Willow made that years back, it was handy. Two, Soleil wasn’t technically supposed to know about it, was she? Willow frowned at Soleil, but then pulled up her time and notification app.
[Global time: ‘42 - 05 - 27 01:16
Local time: ‘42 - 05 - 27 02:16
System: All Good]
“All good?” Willow raised an eyebrow at Soleil. She’d never seen that notification before. Although, maybe that was because she was always getting nagged about something by the system…
Soleil flashed her a grin. “It works, that’s all that counts.” Then she shrugged. “But we need to get going now. There’s somewhere we need to be.”
“Okay. You want to tell me what or where?” Not that it would probably stop her following Soleil, but some clue would be nice.
“Not really.” Soleil’s eyes went up to the cameras at the gate and Willow knew that whatever it was, it had something to do with the stuff they were working on.
“Okay. Lead the way.” Willow shrugged.
“Good.” Soleil nodded, and started walking out the gate.
Willow followed her, wondering for a moment if she was going to be stopped or get any annoying notifications to stop, but everything stayed quiet.
They walked down the road, which was totally quiet right now, nobody walking around, not even those automated delivery systems and stuff were zooming all over the place like they normally would. It was strange, seeing the city quiet like this. It was like people had stopped existing. Then Soleil stopped at a small self-driving car.
“This is mine.” She looked a little awkward. “We’re going to a place where you’ve probably not been before. I don’t want you to be scared or be afraid of the people there, they’re not dangerous.” That didn’t sound good.
“Where are we going?”
“The slums.” Soleil looked away, to her hands, but not in Willow’s direction.
“The slums?” That’s where Violet lived. Her heart started beating faster. “Why?”
But when Soleil looked up again for a moment, there was no question or humour in her eyes. “You know why.”
Willow nodded, she knew why. And just the thought made her hands shake and her heart beat faster. “Okay.” Her voice was barely over a whisper. “Okay.”
Soleil nodded again, and then opened the car door, getting inside. Willow opened the door on her side and got in too. Soleil was bringing her to where Violet lived. Violet who may or may not actually be alive anymore... Soleil was bringing her there for some reason, and the way Soleil was looking, it may not be the hopeful reason that Willow’s heart had been rooting for.
Their surroundings changed the further they got out of the city. Willow lived in a quite affluent neighbourhood on the southern side of the city, the area was beautiful and there had been a real effort to make it a comfortable place to live. There were even gardens and small parks, even though nobody ever used them anymore.
But as they passed the city centre, going up north, the style of the houses became rougher, not as cosy or comfortable as she was used to seeing. And as they kept going, the houses turned into large buildings, flats, on and on.
No, they weren’t even flats, they were almost buildings designed purely for storing people in. Each one had a ‘convenience machine’ on one corner of the building, allowing people to buy cheap food and drinks at any time of day, then most of the middle of the ground floor was dedicated to delivery boxes and on the other end there was a machine which would allow people to convert game money to real money or the other way around without it immediately being connected to their own accounts. It felt so impersonal, so bare.
Everything was a dark grey and especially in the cold light from the street lamps she could see how uninviting this place was. She couldn’t imagine ever living here, but she also felt like she understood why so many people escaped into the fantasy worlds of the VR games. Anything was better than facing this...
But the car kept going, the buildings around her kept getting worse and worse. Not just in quality, but also in what they offered. Soon the money exchange and the convenience machines were gone from the buildings, now only sparsely squished between the grey blocks and many of them didn’t even seem to be working anymore. And later on, even the delivery boxes were gone from the buildings, and Willow’s heart got heavier.
This was... She’d never realised that places like these existed in her own city. This was what she imagined poor countries looked like, not neighbourhoods not even an hour drive from her own place.
“What are you thinking?” Soleil’s voice jolted her, but her tone was soft, caring.
“I... I didn’t think it could be this bad. I didn’t realise the slums were so bad.” They were now coming into an area in which only every other street light worked, the streets themselves had holes in places and so many of the houses had wood in front of what would be windows. The word coming up in her was ‘desolate’.
“Yeah, it’s strange the first time you see it.” Willow looked at Soleil, but Soleil only looked ahead of them. “The place where your friend is supposed to live is... definitely not as good as where you live.”
Willow nodded. She may not have realised it when Violet talked about where she lived before, but she could see the world of difference between where they both lived now and she felt bad about not realising this sooner. Willow had whined about being locked up in that ‘low sensory’ building, but it was like a princely castle in comparison to where Violet lived. She felt so stupid for ever complaining to Violet.
Then the car stopped in front of a large flat. It was bigger than the ones around it, and it even looked decently maintained, but that didn’t take away from the fact that it looked about ready to fall apart. This is where Violet was supposed to live. Violet and kids like her.
If Violet was still alive, that was.