Willow looked up at the building where Violet was supposed to be living, not getting out of the car yet, not knowing what to do.
“How did you find her?” It was the one thing she needed to know, how did Soleil find Violet when they couldn’t track blitzed accounts?
Soleil let out a slow breath, looking out over the street, she seemed nervous. “You know that I’ve been keeping an eye on you for a long time. That included knowing who your friends were. Because of a few things I knew about Violet, I could track her through a couple of different systems, and finally found this place.”
“Did you know that her parents refused to take her back in after she got out of jail for stealing?” Soleil’s voice was careful.
Willow nodded. At least, Violet had given her the short version, but it came down to the same. She got caught stealing and that meant she didn’t live with her parents anymore. Willow hadn’t really worried about the how or why connection between the two, because it wasn’t an uncommon story, it happened all the time.
“After she came out, Violet was sent here and she’s apparently been living here for the last couple of years. As far as I could find out.”
Tears started to form in Willow’s eyes, suddenly really realising what it meant when Violet had called herself a ‘sewer-girl’. She knew that Violet didn’t have it easy, but she never considered what ‘not easy’ had meant in reality. “I had... I had no idea it was this bad.” Willow’s voice wobbled. Violet had always appeared so cheery and full of joy, but how much of that had been true if this was where she lived?
“Do you want to meet her? See if...” Soleil’s voice quieted until nothing. See if she was still alive. See if Violet wasn’t actually the dead woman the police had found.
Willow nodded, opening the car door but stopping right in her tracks. The air here was filled with the fumes of the exhausts from the big factories that were just on the other side of this area. She put her shawl over her nose and mouth and stepped out of the car.
Maybe Violet was here, hopefully she was here. Hopefully she was still alive.
Willow put one foot in front of the other and slowly went over to the door. There was a list of names next to the door, all with their own buttons, probably the people who lived here. She let her eyes go down the list, and finally found Violet near the bottom. Willow pushed the button next to Violet’s name before she lost her courage, before she’d over think it and would run away.
A quiet ringing came from near the button and she quickly pulled her hand back. Violet should have been able to hear that, right?
But the seconds passed and nobody answered.
Willow pushed the button again. She didn’t care if she was waking Violet up anymore, she needed to make sure that Violet was okay, that she was alive.
That she wasn’t the girl who...
Willow turned around to the car. Soleil was still looking her way, but her eyes had already lost all hope. This wasn’t going well, at all. Willow turned and pushed the button one last time, longer this time, just to make sure.
But nothing happened, at all.
This wasn’t right. This wasn’t what was supposed to happen, at all.
Willow’s heart became heavy and she started to get sick to her stomach.
Violet wasn’t here. She wasn’t. The chance that the woman the police found, frozen to death, was Violet just grew exponentially. It could really be her. She could really have lost her friend, and she didn’t know how to deal with that.
Willow stumbled to the car, putting her head against the roof as she dry heaved.
The girl she’d played so many games with hadn’t just gone missing, she could be dead too. She could very likely be dead...
Willow had to sit down, her head spinning, everything in her head going to mush. This was bad, really bad. Really, really bad.
She closed her eyes, tears sliding down her cheeks.
What was the use anymore? Why would she keep trying now? She’d lost her friend. Violet was gone. Really gone. And all because…
“Willow?” A voice sounded from a little away. A voice she knew so well, but she had to be imagining it... Right? It couldn’t be.
Willow looked over to the voice, to the figure standing out against one of the few street lights which were still working. Violet?
“What are you doing here?” The figure came closer and as she became more visible in the light from the other side, Willow could see her better. The girl’s hair was a pale purple, braided into cornrows, her skin a dark brown which seemed to have almost an unhealthily ghostly hue in the poor street lighting, but what pulled Willow in most was the way the girl was almost smiling, even though she definitely looked surprised. “Willow?” The girl knelt down next to Willow before glancing at Soleil for a moment.
“Violet?” Willow’s voice was so quiet that she didn’t even know if the girl could hear her.
“Yes. I’m Violet.” The girl nodded and slowly reached out.
Willow’s heart started beating much too fast but she reached out to Violet too and took her in her arms. Violet was here. She really was. She was alive. She was really alive.
They were quiet for a while, just holding each other. Willow was so glad that her friend was safe, that she was alive. She didn’t even know how to explain how glad she really was.
Then Violet loosened her grip. “Why are you here?”
“To—” Willow swallowed. “To make sure you weren’t dead. They found...” She shook her head, not sure she could talk more.
“Ah.” Violet’s voice was quiet. “Ah, yes. I just... I couldn’t get to you sooner. I’m sorry. I just got back from leaving a note at your place to tell you not to worry about me. I knew you’d worry.” Violet’s hands rubbed Willow’s back, soothing her.
“What?” Willow pulled back a little. She’d done what?
“Yeah. I couldn’t do it sooner.” Violet pulled a face. “Trying to get work when your BASE account is blitzed isn’t particularly easy, so I wasn’t able to leave you a note again. You really thought it was me?” There was emotion in Violet’s voice and Willow nodded. “I’m so sorry. You must have been so scared.”
Willow shook her head. “It wasn’t your fault. They did that to you. You got... They...” Willow didn’t know what to say anymore. The words wouldn’t work.
Violet looked up at Soleil and then she nodded. “I think we need to talk. Explain a few things, but not here.” She shook her head. “Let’s go somewhere we can talk in private. I know a place nearby.” She carefully tugged on Willow’s arm and they both stood up, but Violet kept her arms around Willow, giving her comfort. Being close to Violet felt as good in real life as it did when they were in the VR world, maybe even better, though that could be because of how relieved Willow was that Violet was alive.
Willow looked around the area again, remembering how she felt knowing Violet lived here. “And I’m so sorry, I didn’t know...” Willow shook her head. “I had no idea.”
She felt Violet’s arms tighten around her. “It’s okay. I know that you didn’t know about me living here. I never intended for you to find out, especially not like this.” Then Violet stepped back a little, smiling carefully as Soleil also came to their side of the car. “Let’s go somewhere a little more private.”
They walked a few blocks, mostly through small alleys, until they reached an ‘internet cafe’. Willow thought that these places had died out when the BASE platform was implemented over a decade ago and everyone could connect to the internet from home, never needing an old school computer again.
Violet walked them past rows and rows of computers, just like the one Willow used to play on when she was a little kid. And it surprised her that a lot of computers were actually in use right now. It felt strange, like she’d been transported to the past.
When they passed a bar, Violet waved at the guy behind it. “Three lemonades, please.” And she walked on to one of the round tables at the back with some very old-looking chairs around it, all wood and almost saloon-like.
When they sat down, Willow looked around again. This whole place was a mix of old technology and a saloon-type style, like you sometimes saw in old Western movies. Sure, both things were considered ‘old’, but Willow thought it was strange combination anyway.
“Why did you order lemonade?” Soleil asked and Willow also turned to Violet, who only smiled..
“Because you don’t want to order any of the alcoholic drinks here. And I’m not sure you’d appreciate some of the other non-alcoholic slum drinks they serve. The lemonade basically the only thing without a load of caffeine or alcohol in it.” She shrugged, leaning back as if she was totally at home here, and Willow wondered if she was. If this was where Violet spent most of her days.
The guy from behind the bar came over with three glasses with clouded-yellow liquid in them and a jug with more of it. “Got you the good stuff.”
“Thanks.” Violet flashed him a grin. “You still owe me though.”
The man grumbled as he walked off, but they seemed friendly together, no matter Violet’s words or the gruff way the man acted.
Violet put the glasses in front of them. “Be warned, it can be a bit more sour than you’re used to.” Then she leaned her elbows on the table, looking between them. “Willow, I know, but who are you?” Her eyes were on Soleil, a serious look in them. “Not that I’m not grateful that you helped her come here, but still.”
Soleil nodded. “I get it. I’m Soleil. I worked at the same company as Willow’s dad a couple of years ago. I met Willow when she was really young and I’ve kind of kept an eye on her since.” She reached out and took a sip from the glass, pulling a face before putting it back down. “You weren’t kidding about the sourness.”
Violet shook her head. “It’s hard to get a lot of clean drinking water here, so the lemonade is a little more potent usually.” Then she eyed Willow before looking back at Soleil. “If you’ve kept an eye on her for so long, why did you bring her here? You know that it’s not safe here, you could have checked on me on your own. Why did you feel the need to bring her here?” Violet’s eyes changed and Willow could hear the pain in her voice.
Willow couldn’t let Violet think bad things about Soleil, not when Soleil had been helping so much. “Because I had to know. I couldn’t...” She looked at her hands, tears forming in her eyes and she wished she could just type, not having to actually speak now as she felt her voice get all stuck inside. She opened her mouth, but the words stopped coming.
Violet’s hand covered hers, her touch warm and comforting. “I’m not angry with her. It’s just... She’s putting you in a lot of danger. Leaving the building you live in in the middle of the night, coming here...”
“I know.” Willow put one of her hands over Violet’s, holding it. “I know very well. We know about the… the thing going on…” Could she say the word? But as she looked up, she saw realisation dawn in Violet’s eyes.
Violet spun to face Soleil. “Oh, hell no. What are you getting her all wrapped up in? What are you doing all that for? Why?”
“Because she can help. She can look through the code. She can do things. She can help fix all of this.” Soleil sighed, looking down. “It’s not like I did this lightly.”
“I wanted to help. I want to help to stop people going missing.” Willow leaned forward, trying to make sure Violet understood how serious she was. “We want you back.”
“Do the others know?” Violet frowned.
“No. They don’t know what we’re doing, they just...” Willow sighed. “But they do know what happened to you.”
“Right...” Violet looked at her and then at Soleil again. “Apart from ‘checking if the slum girl is still breathing’, why are you here?” She looked so serious now, not the friendly person Willow had known for so long. “I’m tired. Willow should go back home. So I don’t want to deal with excuses right now.”
“You’re the only...” Soleil didn’t say the word, looking around her nervously. “The only one I knew how to track.”
“Blitzed person? The only blitzed person?” Violet raised an eyebrow. “Are you serious?” She let out a laugh, but there was no joy in it.
“Yes.” There was a defensiveness in Soleil’s voice, but she also seemed confused.
Violet made a move with her arm to encompass the whole room. “There are multiple people in this room alone who have been blitzed in the last weeks. If you want more people for your little experiment, pick someone. They’d probably love to help you, someone from the very company that made their accounts unusable in the first place. Go ahead. Choose.” There was no joy in Violet’s voice anymore and she looked ready to walk out right now, or kick them out of here, either was possible.
Willow’s mouth dropped open as she looked around.
There were multiple people in this room who had blitzed accounts? How did that happen?
How widespread was this thing? How many people had gone missing without anyone noticing it?
What was really going on?