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Today, Estella was spending her lunch that day with her ex-boyfriend (now friend with benefits) Jay Hayward. The tall-ish young man had olive skin, short brown hair and blue eyes. They were sitting at a table at the main courtyard in campus

As Estella tore into a burger, she noticed a woman walking past with a cameraman beside her. She didn’t even need to say anything, Jay noticed her gaze and quickly followed it, seeing the pair right before they went out of view. “Oh, they’re probably from the Angel Bay Times. I heard something earlier about a journalist coming in to report on certain research projects.”

"Well, not a lot to report on when it comes to this town… Aside from the disappearances,” Estella said. “But those have been covered by the big networks and papers.”

Yeah, I heard about that, freaky stuff,” Jay frowned, leaning back in his chair, speaking right before taking a bite out of his burger, “the most worrying part is that they’re random. No apparent connections between any of the victims. Thirty-two victims in mere weeks is alarming by itself, they’re talking about calling in the federal police to aid in the investigation.”

Can we not talk about this? I really don’t want to think about stuff like this while I’m eating,” Estella sighed, before taking another bite. Just thinking about what might have happened was distressing, and she would really rather not contemplate it. It just ruined her good vibes and all that.

Fair enough, it’s talked about enough on TV and on the net as it is,” Jay nodded, clearly sharing at least some of her discomfort. “I just wish I could be out there helping to solve the case. But, you know how it is, I don’t want to just be some cop, gotta get my degree and then go to law school and all that.”

Why are you complaining? You enjoy that crap, you want to go to law school,” Estella smirked.

Es, really? Must you make me sound like the most boring guy on the planet right now?” Jay chuckled, shaking his head. “I totally want to do that stuff, but I also want to be out there, dispensing justice and righting wrongs. Sure, whether I become a prosecutor or a detective, I imagine it won’t be quite as thrilling as my head has built it up to be, but I still wanna do it. Someone’s gotta help maintain law and order to protect people, might as well be me.”

Estella smiled softly. This was exactly the sort of thing that had caused her to start dating him in the first place. Maybe they weren’t the best fit for each other, but she had full confidence he’d make someone very, very happy one day. Their was a reason their breakup was pretty amicable. “Yeah, I’m sure you will someday, Jay.”

And I’m sure you’ll make some kind of crazy archaeological discovery someday, Es,” Jay smiled back. “You wouldn’t shut up about it while we were dating.”

Estella laughed sheepishly, as she began to bite down into her burger again, “yeah, I might’ve gotten carried away on that.”

Oh, no, the stuff you talked about was interesting, it just wasn’t as much my jam as it was yours,” Jay smirked playfully. “I get why you’re more into digging up and exploring the past, though.”

There’s not a lot left to discover here on this planet,” Estella sighed. “Space is more Nat’s thing, and while there’s vast swathes of the oceans humanity hasn’t explored, it’s just… Creepy fish and squids and all that. Not like anyone’s gonna find Atlantis or anything, that shit’s just a parable invented entirely by Plato to rail against Athenian decadence while showing off how much of a hard-on he had for Sparta’s way of doing things.”

Okay, that’s a new one, so, what, no continent of Lemuria or El Dorado?” Jay leaned forward, elbows on the table as he took another bite.

Lemuria got disproven by continental drift theory, and El Dorado was a whole load of wishful thinking by the colonial Spanish because they literally could not comprehend that the native American peoples had no monetary use for gold and didn’t value it as much as the colonials did,” Estella shook her head, trying not to laugh at the absurdity of what surfaced in her mind. “The natives just kept telling the Spaniards complete nonsense to send them off into faraway, deadly locations just to get rid of them, and the Spanish kept falling for it. It’s hilarious. If El Dorado actually existed, there’s a 99% chance that someone would’ve found it already, and even then it probably wouldn’t have lived up to expectations, because, realistically, nothing would’ve. That’s how insane the legend became. And just to drive things home, Spain actually dumped their entire supply of platinum in the ocean just because they didn’t realize its true value and people were using it to make fake gold.”

That actually got a laugh out of Jay, who leaned back as he swallowed his last chunk of burger. “Wow.”

Estella was a student of history, specifically studying for a bachelor’s in ancient history, though she minored in modern history as well. She was regarded as a good student by her professors, though she liked to think she found a good balance between her studies and her social life.

But yeah, there’s still plenty of history we haven’t uncovered, and I want to be there to unearth it,” Estella remarked with a swell of pride. “If this was a Disney movie, I’d be singing about how much I wanna do it.”

Ain’t that the truth,” Jay remarked, with a chuckle. “So. I could walk you home later this afternoon, if you want.”

Already made arrangements with Anja and Nat, but thanks. And besides, we both know it’s just a booty call in disguise,” Estella smirked at him.

Maybe, but you can’t blame me for wanting to spend some private time with my gorgeous, very busty ex-girlfriend who is now a friend with benefits,” Jay smirked back.

Estella recalled how good Jay was in bed, and just smiled. “Fair enough.”

Anja was currently hanging out at the back of the shopping area, leaning against a wall. And she wasn’t alone. Sonia Mata was with her. And she was always a good companion for times when she just wanted to hang and be chill. Sonia was darker-skinned, with long back hair and green eyes. Her attire could be best described as ‘lite goth’, which really just translated to some purple lipstick and makeup, basic black shirt, jacket, pants and boots, and a few earrings.

Just another day, huh?” Sonia said idly, looking out towards the courtyard. She was chewing gum in her mouth quietly and slowly. She was the type of person who would smoke if they didn’t care about their own well-being, but Sonia did, and so she indulged in alternatives like gum and sweets.

Anja nodded. “Yeah. Same old same old, really. Ain’t bad, but not really exciting.”

Yeah, I hear ya,” Sonia said. “You still thinkin’ about the crap you mentioned the other day about fate and all that stuff?”

Anja nodded slowly. “Yeah. I’m really not sure any of us really have free will, I guess? There’s the illusion of choice, I guess, but we all end up doing whatever destiny has in store for us. Wonder what Matt would say…”

Sonia paused, thinking it over, and shrugged. “I guess that’s possible, can’t deny that. But I think you’re just trying to overthink something that wasn’t your fault to begin with. God’s supposed to have a plan for all of us, but it’s not like he controls our minds or anything, otherwise the world would be a way better place. And also maybe a more boring one.”

Fair enough, but… I guess it’s just a hunch of mine. Don’t know what else to say other than that,” Anja said.

Or, again, you’re just overthinking things again. What happened back then was a freak accident. I’m just glad I didn’t lose you as well,” Sonia said.

That gave Anja pause to think. She smiled softly, “well, I’m glad fate gave me a friend who helps keep my head on straight.”

Sonia smiled softly, clearly flattered by the remark, “oh, come on, Anj, I thought you didn’t do the sentimental shit.”

What? It’s what I really think. I don’t bullshit you, Sonia. Never have,” Anja said. “Still looking into the occult stuff?”

Girl, you know it,” Sonia replied, with a chuckle. “Yeah, I know, stereotypical, but I always had a thing for myth and fantasy and shit like that since I was a little girl. But checking out what those harmless weirdos think is interesting. Some weird speculation about there being another Earth where all the magic is and some shit because Jesus chased off all the old gods and monsters who ruled the roost or some nonsense.”

Huh. That’s… A thing, I guess,” Anja blinked.

Sonia nodded, grinning. “Imagine that, we can’t find any fantasy stuff because they all ran off somewhere else we can’t go to. That’d be all sorts of crazy.”

Anja nodded, staring off into the distance. “Yeah, I guess it would be…”

There was silence between them for a good thirty seconds, before Sonia spoke again.

Hey. You heard about that big bio-lab complex just outside Newcastle that had some kind of accident?”

Hmm? Some kind of containment failure, right?” Anja replied, recalling that particular news story in her head. “Didn’t seem like an accident to me, from the footage I saw. Looked more like deliberate sabotage… Or something breaking out. But what kind of biological experiment could possibly break out? Doesn’t make any sense…”

Anja was studying biology. Her course was a bachelor’s in medical sciences, though she wasn’t entirely sure whether she wanted to go into becoming a doctor. She already felt like she had blood on her hands, she wasn’t sure if she was ready for more of it.

Didn’t take you for a conspiracy theorist. What, am I gonna be worried that you’ll be listening to shock jocks or diving into the cesspit of QAnon or something like that?” Sonia snorted, clearly trying not to laugh.

Now you’re the one overthinking things. I might be wrong, but a chemical or biological accidental just didn’t seem to match up. Or maybe I’m overthinking things again too,” Anja sighed. “Probably won’t matter either way.”

There was another awkward pause.

Sonia asked, “so. Wanna shag after classes are over?”

Eh, sure, why not, got nothing else better to do,” Anja shrugged.

She thought she saw something dark moving in the distant shadows, but figured it to be a trick of the light or something.

Natalia was having lunch with one of her fellow engineering students, Florrie Ashworth, at a table on the greens not far from the lake. Florrie was a short but curvy woman, with medium-length blonde hair tied back in braids and green eyes. She wore a black jumper and a set of jeans. The pair were sharing a sushi box together. Florrie was using a couple of books to boost her height on her seat. Florrie noted, “your parents still ain’t back?”

Natalia sighed, “yeah, it’s the longest they’ve been gone. They send regular updates and photos, but I guess I just can’t help but worry just a little bit, even though I know they’re pretty tough.”

I guess the best you can do is just wait and pray their trip is a safe one, then,” Florrie said, eating another piece of sushi. “Focus on your studies, I guess.”

Been trying, but that just makes me stay up late working!” Natalia groaned, putting another piece into her mouth. “I need to get back to sleeping earlier…”

Yeah, I can sympathise with that,” Florrie chuckled. “Geez, girl, you worry too much about this stuff. Take it easier. You’re good enough to not need late nights. You’re like, the opposite of someone who does all their work at the last minute.”

Natalia couldn’t help but stew over those words, and sighed, “yeah, you’re right. I just can’t help it right now, I guess. God, I am so stressed.”

Then you need to wind down and reduce the stress somehow. You need a date,” Florrie said. Judging by the fact that she was smirking upon seeing Natalia’s horrified expression, it seemed she expected that reaction. “Come on, it’ll be good for you, you haven’t had a boyfriend or girlfriend in years.”

Florrie, that’ll only make things worse! I can’t deal with dating someone right now!” Natalia winced, squirming in her seat. “What if it goes horribly wrong?!”

Okay, okay, calm down,” Florrie said, raising her hand. “Sorry, I was just teasing.”

Well, I am the only person you know you can tease,” Natalia said. Both of them were, to put it simply, nerds. Both of them were different degrees of shy, and while Florrie was somewhat less so, she still had some shyness in her, enough for Natalia to sympathise. “Not in a mean way, I know…”

Yeah, right, I know. Nat, you’re special and one of the coolest people I know,” Florrie smiled, tossing another piece of sushi into her mouth. “Once we graduate, if we started a tech company together, I think we could be unstoppable.”

Geez, trying to rope me into your grand plans for riches again?” Natalia giggled, her mood lifting. Florrie had big dreams, for sure. It’s just that she wasn’t quite sure how to achieve those dreams right now. “Yeah, I totally get it, geez. You wouldn’t need me, you’re super smart, your eye for mechanical and electronic analysis is amazing.”

Yeah, but you’re better than me at coming up with cool ideas,” Florrie said. “Nobody can think outside the box like you can.”

Natalia’s field of study was electrical and electronic engineering, with some mechanical engineering on the side. It was something that interested her a lot ever since she was a little girl, and she put her being into her passion with incredible enthusiasm. However, this sometimes came at the detriment of her social life. That was not to say she was friendless, however. Case in point, her friendship with Florrie.

Natalia’s face flushed, looking down at the box of sushi, “Florrie… Thanks, but…”

Okay, okay, I get the point. We’ve got years to figure out what we’re gonna do after we graduate,” Florrie chuckled, as she grabbed the last piece of sushi and ate it. “For now, chill out and take things slower, you know? It won’t kill you.”

I’ll give it a try. Thanks, Florrie,” Natalia nodded.

Then she spotted something in the corner of her eye, and looked up, seeing multiple dark figures jumping across a nearby roof. “What the…”

Florrie followed her gaze, but by the time she was looking in the same direction, the figures were gone. “What? What did you see?”

I thought I saw some people jumping across that roof… Ugh, I must be tired,” Natalia groaned, rubbing her temples.

But in the meantime, you gotta come over to my place, version 4.5 is ready and it is wild, hits all the right spots,” Florrie giggled.

That caused Natalia to blush profusely. “Florrie, we shouldn’t be talking about this sort of thing at lunch…”

But we’re gonna be busy the rest of the day, though! And I made a new double-sided one that I need a partner to test,” Florrie replied, keeping her voice relatively hushed.

Natalia bit her lip, and the temptation overcame her. “You’ll have to bring ‘em to my place, then, I’m going home together with my sisters because of people disappearing.”

Good enough. God knows you need the stress relief,” Florrie remarked with satisfaction and triumph in her voice.

Poor Natalia simply wondered what exactly she had gotten herself into this time.

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About the author

Candescence

Bio: Amateur game designer and writer.

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