CHAPTER NINETEEN: THE QUESTION Location: Second Homebase, Time: 3:00 p.m. (J.D. Wylder)
I’m limping by the time I reach Second Homebase but that’s not too bad, all things considered. Usually, falling off a balcony would lead to more permanent injury. Or, I don’t know, death. (But maybe I’m being overdramatic)
A twisted ankle isn’t too bad, though. Hurts like hell, but still.
I very nearly knock on the door when I arrive at Second Homebase (old habits die hard), but quickly change course and enter the 15-number code into the digital lock. The door beeps, clicks, and lets me in.
Second Homebase is unchanged. Despite having been untouched for at least a couple of weeks, everything inside shines— even the fake plastic flowers littering the apartment. I pass by furniture that is just as sleek— a polished oak work desk, a gleaming black center table, a very stiff-looking settee— as I make my way to the kitchen. The Wine Cabinet is still stocked, so I pour myself a bottle of sherry before heading back to the main room.
I find what I’m looking for beneath one of the settee cushions: a small white laptop. The moment it starts up, I navigate my way to a folder marked “ANONYMOUS,” all the while keeping an eye on the game console to make sure the Fiction doesn’t start up again without my knowledge. Last time, I was too busy being in pain to concentrate on what was happening, but I can’t use the same excuse twice. Ren is a smart character; she’s going to realize something is up if Jasper stays mute.
I eventually find what I’m looking for: a corrupted video file titled R3N. It takes a bit to unscramble the data, but when I do, the video I remember watching before the Fiction started starts playing.
“Ren” looks at me solemnly from the other side of the screen, wearing a red hoodie. Only when she made this video, she wasn’t “Ren,” because she still existed in the real world, and she had a real name. “Hey,” she says to the screen. She waves, as if she can actually see me.
“Hey yourself,” I murmur to no one.
She leans forward. “So if you’re watching this, it means that Boss found a way to cheat the system…”
I hear the Fiction start up before I see it. By the time I look at the game console, Ren and co. are already on the other side of the door. My brain is scattered, so I focus on the most noticeable thing— a flaming bird— and make a comment: “Another bird, seriously?”
Ren— both the one in the Fiction and the one in the video— respond at the same time: “Seriously.”
SELECTED SUGGESTION: #4
(Selected with random number generator)
Location: Apparently, a ginormous ice flat. Time: ???
The first thing she becomes aware of is the cold, which coats her arms with goosebumps. Behind her, Grace and Henry collectively gasp. It doesn’t take long for them to see they are standing on a ginormous ice flat. It expands outward in every direction, a pristine and empty sheet of ice that goes on forever.
Before any of them can question their life choices, the door behind them slams shut and disappears from existence, leaving them stranded on the ice flat. It is extremely quiet, not even the wind is blowing, and there seems to be no shelter in sight.
An awkward silence hovers between the three of them, but is quickly broken when Grace sneezes and says, “Oh for god’s sake.” Without waiting for anyone’s permission, she holds out her hand and conjures a flaming bird. It squawks as it rises into the air. Ren finds herself drawing closer to it without realizing. It is damn freezing in this place.
Jasper, who has been quiet on Ren’s shoulder for quite some time, picks this moment to release an exasperated croak. “Another bird, seriously?”
“Seriously.” At least the flaming bird is warm. All Jasper is good for is banter.
“Your bird’s talking again.”
Ren turns in-place, holding up her hand in a defensive gesture before she sees it’s just Mr. Sin, observing them all with his usual deadpan expression. With his pale skin and eyes, he almost looks like he belongs here in the icy landscape.
“Really?” Ren deadpans right back at him. “I hadn’t noticed.”
“Hey,” Jasper pecks her ear. “Stop talking about me like I’m not here.”
Mr. Sin narrows his eyes, so much like slivers of ice, at the bird. “You know,” he says, almost conversationally. “You remind me of someone, bird.”
Jasper squawks. “I hope it’s someone cool.”
“It’s someone… very annoying.”
“Hey.” Grace snaps her fingers and the flaming bird flares brighter, hotter. “Enough with the idle chatter.” She glances at Henry, who has just been standing there quietly, curled into himself and shivering in the light of the flaming bird. “Henry, book,” she commands.
Henry straightens immediately. “Yes, ma’am.” He turns a page of his book and begins to read aloud: “The group enters the frigid Place-In-Between and finds what they are looking for beneath their feet.”
The minute he says the words, they all look down. Ren is astonished to see blurry shapes beneath the ice. “The Book doesn’t say how to get them out,” Henry says.
Grace gives him a look. “You do realize I can burn things?”
Even though Henry is, for some reason, still wearing his mask, Ren is fairly certain she can see him blush. “You know that… that’s a good point.”
Grace waves them all back, then sets her flaming bird on the ice. The thing shrieks as it pounds itself against the landscape.
“Wow, that is an extremely angry bird,” Jasper says.
Ren shrugs. “I’d be angry too if I were on fire all the time.”
Some indeterminable amount of time later, the bird burns the ice down enough for Grace to reach inside and pull out the first of the blurry shapes. Ren quirks an eyebrow when she sees it’s a fish— a blue, wooden fish with a gaping mouth and soulless eyes. Grace tosses it to Ren and says, “I’m not reaching inside that thing.”
Ren rolls her eyes and puts her hand inside. She pulls out AN ITEM. And stares at it.
Henry clears his throat and reads from the book, unprompted: “The first item they find will help guide them to the Woman in the Mirror, but it is not how they find their exit.”
They all stare at the item. Jasper croaks. “Nifty… I think.”
Without comment, Ren sets the item aside and waits for Grace to pull out more fish. While she watches, it occurs to her that she has gone fishing before. A memory, fuzzy and soft around the edges, fades into being.
She remembers, vaguely, sitting side-by-side on a pier with Adonis. In the memory, he is whistling, only pausing to grin at her when her line comes up empty.
“You’re really terrible at this,” he offers.
Ren rolls her eyes. “At least I know how to fish. Didn’t you grow up near an ocean?”
Adonis makes a sound that is something in between psht and nah. “So? I hate the ocean.”
“That’s… a little sad.”
“I prefer swimming pools. At least if I drown, I won’t be swallowing salt.”
“Ren! Earth to Ren!” Jasper squawks, and Ren pulls herself out of the memory just fast enough to catch the next wooden fish.
She reaches into it. Nothing. The same thing happens with the next dozen fish. There is nothing inside any of them. Henry’s future-telling book does not give them the future beyond “the group finds nothing in the next fish.” It quickly becomes obsolete.
Soon, everyone’s patience is wearing thin. Ren cannot stop herself from shuddering, Henry is pacing back and forth in an effort to get heat into his body, Mr. Sin blinks ice flakes from his eyelashes, and Grace curses as she rams her flaming bird into the ice.
Ren is too cold and too tired to see the cracks in the ice sheet. She does not notice them until they have stretched beneath her feet and by then, it is much too late.
“Ren!” Jasper cries, just as the ice groans beneath her.
Ren looks down— and plummets as the ice separates beneath her feet.
She hears shouts and cries, but they quickly become muted as she plummets like an anchor through the water. Some part of her— the small part of her mind that is miraculously not panicking— notes that she should not be sinking this fast.
But sinking she is.
It is a surprisingly pleasant feeling, sinking. The world becomes warmer and Ren feels, finally, like she can rest. She’s been going, going, going this whole time, and for what? She doesn’t even know what her final destination is.
“That is because your final destination is neither here nor there,” says a whisper-thin voice. Ren startles and opens her eyes, and finds herself floating in-place, darkness all around her. Briefly, she spots something colorful glinting in the dark: a canvas of scales, perhaps, but it quickly disappears. “Your destination is a different pane of existence.”
“What the hell does that mean?” Ren doesn’t realize she’s said the words aloud until she sees little bubbles coming from her mouth.
“That is for you to discover,” says the mysterious-voice-that-is-everywhere. “But for now, I ask you a simple question: What do you value most?”
Ren stares suspiciously into the darkness. She recalls the fortune she unveiled earlier
in the previous chapter. In order to find the truth, you must lie, it had said.
But how can she lie when she doesn’t know what she values most?
In the end, she OFFERS THE ANSWER THAT FEELS MOST RIGHT.
“Good,” the voice says. “Very good. Let us see where this takes us…”
Ren again feels herself sinking. “Wait.” She grasps uselessly at the water. “Wait! I have people up there!”
But the magical ocean does not care. It pulls Ren deeper and deeper into its depths. She can’t see, can’t breathe—
And then, miraculously: light.
Ren tumbles from darkness into SOME OTHER PLACE…