“Shit, Simon, Sam we got a problem!” Cal announced as he jumped down from the Tree’s headquarters. Everyone had left for the problem street barely five minutes ago, with the crowd starting to thin out ten.
Simon and Sam had stayed behind to fix some minor issues, mostly where they were going to put the most-likely-traumatized people. They looked up towards the orange cat, gesturing wildly towards the room with the IDM. They shared glances for a second, before nodding to each other and racing towards the upstairs.
“What happened?” Simon asked as he popped up. “What’s happening?” Sam asked as she, too, appeared moments later. The gate was open, something which neither of them noticed or really cared why -they usually kept the gate closed, even when they’d been organizing the Great Hunt- and they barreled on through.
At the top was Cal, somehow managing to beat them both there, with the small black kitten that was Haley’s avatar. The kitten was breathing hard and fast. “Something’s happening, I don’t know what to do!” she cried out immediately.
“Whoa, slow down, what’s happening?” Sam said, diving onto her knees and sliding the rest of the way to the kitten. Simon immediately leapt over the trio, heading for the IDM. If it was an Alenkas thing, maybe he could do something using it.
“I don’t know! I got home from school and my mom was unconscious against the floor and my dad was shouting at her, I saw smoke coming from the basement and I don’t know what to do! I called 911 and they said they’d send someone but they’re at least fifteen minutes out and-” she barreled on and on. Sam and Cal swapped glances as Simon turned away from the IDM.
Sam shook herself out of the surprised looks the trio had been sending to each other. “Slow down. You got home from school, and you found your mom unconscious,” Sam tried to explain, gathering her wits about her. This was something that could only be affected in the real world.
Where the Alenkans were powerless.
Haley nodded. She realized that the Alenkans probably couldn’t do much, but she had been so lost she didn’t know what to do, and her first thought was to ask what they’d do. She already did what she could, call the emergency phone lines, but she didn’t know if she was hysterical or not. Could the operator understand her?
“Ok. And you said your dad was shouting at her. What was he saying?” Sam asked. Simon looked up in surprise, thinking that Sam was going to skip that question. There wasn’t much time, and each question was killing more time that they may not have.
“He was calling her a useless bitch, an arrogant whore, and pyromaniac slut. He didn’t seem all that concerned by the smoke coming from the basement.”
“What color was the smoke? Black?” Cal cut in. Simon and Sam didn’t bother hiding their surprise. Cal had had more life experience than the two of them, and it didn’t surprise them that he knew something more about this than they would. What they were more concerned about was what the colors meant.
“Grey, but there were some black things in there. That’s a bad sign right?” Haley asked.
Cal wasn’t quite sure. “It could be bad, but it could also be a good sign. Depends on how much heat and pressure has been built up. That said, what we need you to do is get to your room-“
“Already in there. It’s how I’m here!”
“Good. You’re on the second floor right? Find a towel or something and put it underneath the crack on the door. If you can get it wet first, do it but if not don’t worry about it. You want a towel, not other clothes. Then go and open the window-“
“You’re not going to ask me to jump are you!?”
Cal stared at her for only a second, “No, oh god no. I want you to shout as loud as you can that you’re there. Call the emergency lines again if you have to, but you have to let them know you’re still in the building.”
“But what about my parents!? They’re still down there, right next to the smoke!”
“They’ll have to make it out on their own. Once your out, send the firefighters in to get them out. Why didn’t you escape out the door?” Cal asked.
Haley blushed as she looked down. “The basement door was between me and the front door, and we don’t have a backdoor. I didn’t notice the smoke when I first came in, so I walked right past it, then I noticed everything and ran upstairs. I’m…sorry I didn’t notice it.”
Simon knelt down next to her, “Hey, we’re not upset. We just want you to be safe. Can you do that Haley? Do what Cal asked?” the kitten nodded. “Good, go!” Simon exclaimed, punctuating his statement with a small fist pump. Haley grinned as she logged out a second later.
“So in all seriousness, how badly did we fuck up?” Simon asked. “And how the hell do you know all this random stuff?”
“We did what we could. All we can do is give her advice. And remember, I lived on my own for years. I tried my hands at a lot of random jobs. Not to mention sometimes I had a laptop and plenty of time on a search engine,” Cal answered.
“Wouldn’t a dry towel burn?” Sam asked.
“Yeah, under normal circumstances. The thing I’m worried about more is the smoke. That’s why we shouldn’t worry if she couldn’t get the towel wet. It should at least protect against the smoke coming from the bottom.”
They were interrupted as Haley came back in, this time more upset. “I did what you asked, but the door was hot and I always heard I shouldn’t open it in that case so I just put a towel down and peed on it, but there was a lot of smoke outside and I didn’t want to open the window to let it in-“
Cal blinked. “Ok, no you did good!” he tried to reassure. “That’s one way to get a wet towel. The door was hot, you said? Ok, just go back and make sure to call the emergency lines again, let them know who you are and where you are, and stay on the line.”
Haley nodded, before she logged out again.
“Do we have any other plans? That was smart of her, I wouldn’t have thought of that,” Cal said a moment later. Simon blinked, before he turned back to the IDM. He typed something furiously, accessing the hundreds of directories and programs that the IDM could find. “I assume you do.”
“I do but it’s not a good one. And it’d be up to her, more than anything. When we were put here from the testing pods, the system blinked when we died. I can force that again, localized to a single machine.”
“Wait, you want to bring her here? With us!?” Sam shouted out.
Cal raised his hands, “Wait, wait, no that’s a good idea. It’s a last ditch choice scenario, but this way she’d still get to live at least somewhere. She’s too young to die, dammit!”
Sam breathed heavily. “No, I agree with you on that front, but bringing her here, that’s just…I don’t know. We’re not exactly the most normal of people here. And she’d grow up in this world, whereas we at least know more about the real world.”
“I don’t know think we can say that anymore, Sam,” Simon said quietly. “Her house is burning to the ground, her parents weren’t the best there were, and now she’s in danger of dying. At least here we can watch her, teach her.”
“But we’d take all of her dreams away. She’d never have kids, never see the real world again, be stuck in this virtual hell that we are!” Sam claimed back.
Silence reigned for a moment. “Sorry. That was out of line,” Sam whispered quietly. Cal and Simon shared a quick look. Sam was always one that preferred the real world, and she was barely nineteen. It wasn’t a surprise to them that she’d view Alenkas as a ‘virtual hell’. Hell, they agreed with her on many points.
“No, it wasn’t. I can see where you’re coming from,” Simon said after a moment. “Alenkas was never designed to be a permanent home. It was meant to be a getaway, a virtual world away from the problems of the real one. And yet here we are, bringing the real problems to the virtual. It’s enough to think that maybe Alenkas should never have been built,” he continued. His face seemed to age ten years, the shadows threatening to overtake it.
“I think you did something grand. You helped make this, we all helped make this,” Cal motioned. Simon looked over at him.
“We all had our doubts, Simon. Hell, this isn’t even the first time we’re voicing this. Alright though…if we have no other choice, we’ll let her choose. I don’t think it’s much of a choice though,” Sam said quietly.
“No, it isn’t. To die in a fire or to live in purgatory. What wonderful choices we can give her,” Cal responded. The three nodded, and prepared themselves for the worst possible scenario. If that was the case, they had to prepare for a new Alenkan to arrive.