1.1: G0 Phase
Loc surveyed his empire with boyish relish. His mouth curled into a proud smile as he watched the world he built take its final form. A city that stretched as far as his eyes could see shimmered like diamonds beneath the evening sun. The buildings were made of the strongest material money could buy: paned with glass so durable not even a theoretical high speed crash by any of the zooming hovercars that dominated the city posed a threat.
All was quiet up here though, as the evening rush simmered to a distracted whir below the view of his windowpane. Loc stood in a skyscraper that literally kissed the very edges of the atmosphere; he was so high up he could see where the clouds formed somewhere between the eightieth and ninetieth floors, and where the world curve beyond those clouds. He was so high up it would seem impossible for him to have such a good idea of what was going on down below. But he did.
The city would be relaxing as the work day gave way to an assortment of night life. The sun bled into the sky as it was stabbed by the horizon, and from his chrome throne Loc could almost hear the world give a heaving sigh. He looked skyward as the night purpled the edges of pink like a bruise. He sighed out contentedly as the stars winked seductively at him. It had been such a great day, better than most.
It had taken him years to get his dream off the ground; innumerable days’ worth of work to lay the foundation for the greatest city the world has ever seen. The planning, the designing, the constant re-designing and re-working. of his master escape plan had culminated into what he saw before him. And it was beautiful in a way he could never describe in just words.
He contemplated going down to walk the streets he nigh paved himself, but couldn’t bear to tear himself away from the unadulterated majesty just beyond the thick glass window. Wind nudged away the clouds so he could see far down below and he couldn’t have been more appreciative: although the sun was not completely hidden beneath the horizon, the city was already dressed up in neon lights. Hot pink, electric blue, blinding yellow, zesty green, and all manner of party lights popped on, dazzling his eyes and his imagination. Loc, like a child at an aquarium, pressed his hand against the glass to scrunch his face as close as he could without mashing his nose against the pane. His body vibrated in excitement, his heart pounding. He sighed out, his breath collecting on the window before evaporating, and shut his eyes; the city hummed in its vibrancy, a sound with no distinguishable melody or words, but it was music to him. The dull buzz of industrial bots floating to the tower for decommissioning for the night, vehicles purring as they hovered home, the huge screens below flashing the newest advertisement for the hottest product, the urban melody moved him just as if he was listening to some R&B or classic hip-hop. It was the song of an escape masterfully executed.
Loc vibrated again, but this time it was not out of eagerness. It was a warning.
“Shit,” he muttered before he dug into his pants pockets, searching vigorously.
“Please insert cash or time card to extend VR experience,” came the disembodied voice of a woman. There came another vibration.
“Yeah, yeah,” Loc replied irritably as he finally pulled out his time card, a thin sheet of blue and white plastic decorated with golden font. The system allowed him to feel out the card receiver in front of him and he quickly slid it down the designated slot. He watched with impatience as it recognized his transaction with a comet swirling in a circle.
“Transaction denied. Insufficient funds on time card.”
“What?! Oh, come on!” But he barely had time to swipe his card again before his perfect world dissolved in a curtain of code; the setting sun, the city and its lights, his shimmering tower dissipated within seconds of the voice’s emotionless words. He stood there looking at a logged out screen of a nameless game that had been his escape; he sighed as he took off the VR gear and came back into his far less than perfect reality.
Evander Nicholas Locke stood in the far right corner of E&S VRcade beneath the headset that had served as his gateway. All around him people were immersed wholly in whatever game they were hooked up to; some swinging controllers about like swords or aiming them like guns, all oblivious to his plight. He resented their carefree playing and no doubt sufficient funds on their time cards.
With a groan and a huff, he turned away from the headset, hopped off the platform and landed with a slight bounce on the cork floor. Glancing wistfully at the other gamers, Loc contemplated fussing around with the customer experience bot, but it would be an undignified end to what had been such a good day, and he was already too annoyed to ruin it any further. He sighed as he trudged towards the exit, out into the heat of the street. It was August in Atlanta; the oppressive nature of the summer sun barely abated by the breeze as it ruffled the curls on his crown.
He tucked his hands in the pockets of his grey speckled joggers and walked aimlessly, trying not to get sapped into his dejected mood. It was so easy to let the grey settle in on him, the hard part was getting it to go away. Instead he tried to focus on the sun on his back, how he could feel its heat on his scalp even though he had a mess of soft coils to block the rays; he thought of how blue the sky was, how the air had that pre-autumn crispness to it and how this same crispness made goosebumps rise on his exposed arms. But it was no use, and Loc soon found himself slipping into the depression that had become synonymous with his existence. A sigh escaped his lips as the weight of facing his real life, the real world, crashed down on him with the mass of Earth itself. The day he had been hoping to spend in the arcade thoroughly destroyed and now rerouted down an all-too-familiar path: he’d take the bus back to his side of town, walk two and a half miles to his apartment complex tucked within a neighborhood so scarred by violence and stagnation that it seemed to be literally frozen in time. Not even a cheap street-sweeping bot was budgeted to clean up the beer bottles and e-cig packs littering the overcrowded Bethlehem Hills complex; the internet was slow, like 2010s slow; and the VR setup he had spent three years saving up for had been stolen within a week of its installation. He absolutely abhorred his life, and no amount of running ever could take him far enough for long.
He pulled out his dinosaur of a phone to check the time; 5:58. Not in the mood to voice anything, he navigated to the transit app to summon the trolley. The bus would be there at 6:05, and he’d be home in time for a solo dinner of microwave ramen and several hours of mindless gaming on his equally ancient laptop before slouching off to bed, all while pretending he didn’t care whether or not the front door opened.
A sign out in front of a trendy restaurant came into view. When he came to it, Loc leaned against the hipster brick like the delinquent he knew everyone around here probably thought he was; one dusty, nondescript sneaker crossed over the other. He peered down the street where he had walked in hopes of seeing the bus coming, but had no such luck. He groaned in boredom.
As if sensing his mood, his pocket vibrated followed by a deep ping. Loc, eager for the distraction, wasted no time and took his phone out to see. He had a message. Sliding his thumb across the screen, his messenger app popped open only to see a number he did not recognize. The idea of it being from his mother slithered itself into his mind, until he quickly dashed that thought before glancing at the message,
“Don’t get on the bus.”
Loc blinked at the screen, then peered around the silent street. Not a soul was around; there was just shadows of drones high above spiriting about. Even the no doubt extravagant curtains were drawn in each of the renovated lofts that haunted the street like ghosts caught in a millennial time loop. A cold chill ran down his spine,
“Who is this?” he asked the phone, the message transliterating successfully despite the creaking voice grating out his parched throat. A new message came seconds after he sent his question.
I am Harriet, and I am looking for Evander Locke.
He almost replied, ‘you got the wrong number’ by default; he had never known anybody named Harriet. Tubman? Loc thought with incredulity. Pfft, haha. Harriet Tubman… This is a prank. He tried to explain it away, but he could count on one hand how many people had his number, and neither of them would pull such a prank.
Palms sweaty, his insides fluttered with uncertainty and apprehension. He extended his thumbs to type the lie, but stopped suddenly;
Who was this? How did they know me? How had they gotten my number? Loc bit the tip of his thumb as he thought in consternation.
What’s the point in lying if this ‘Harriet’ already has my name and my number? Who knows what else she knows about me: my Social Security, birthday? Shit! My home address!? There is no point in trying to lie to someone who potentially has my entire identity in their hands! Shit.
He gave a shuddering sigh and resigned himself to his fate. He told the truth.
He looked at the message and decided it sounded too submissive. He hurriedly typed up a second message:
Who wants 2 know?
You’ve passed the test, Evander Locke. We would like to extend you an invitation.
Invitation? Test? The fuck?
He waited for some clarification instead of writing the myriad of questions that tore through his mind the second he read that message.
His phone vibrated and another message appeared from his enigmatic creeper.
An invitation to come to Exodus.
He took some measured breaths to steady his erratic lungs as his pragmaticism kicked in.
What the hell does she want? Could this person be more cryptic? Loc thought in annoyance. May as well milk this for what it’s worth.
The Promised Land open to those who pass the tests, and your new home if you do as I instruct.
Wait, Exodus!? New home? Promised land? Pass the test?! Hah! Reddit would have a field day with this.
Loc had never been religious, but he knew an allusion to Heaven when he read it. And he certainly knew an alternate reality game intro when he saw one.
But that still doesn’t explain how they got my number, and especially not my government name. Loc bit down hard on his thumb; his calf muscles tensed and his mind whirred off track. His thoughts muddled with frantic anxiety as feelings of vulnerability and fear, swarmed him. Something akin to hope even managed to worm its way into his addled emotions. He was so busy trying to sort them out he didn’t text back. Luckily, he didn’t need to.
I understand that this may seem overwhelming and suspicious to you, but rest assured that this is not a trick nor are you in any danger.
The next message came even before he could formulate a suitably sarcastic reply.
You are in more danger if you get on that bus coming around the corner than if you don’t, Evander Locke.
An icy pike skewered his soul as he read that. There came the sound of a heavy vehicle from the direction of the VR arcade. Sure enough the bus was trundling round the corner this very second. The muscles in his legs twitched as he fought the urge to run somewhere, anywhere. His heart was racing and even the scorching sun could not help as his body broke out into a cold sweat.
She knows. She knows where I am… She’s watching me right now?! There’s….. nowhere to run..
Loc got off the sign and stepped back until he was in the middle of the sidewalk; the bus stopped right in front of him, and the doors swung open with a swift swoosh. The young man looked through the semi-tinted windows of the bus, searching for any mean mugs or evil eyes from its patrons. There were only four people on, and all of them looked more distracted by their own fatigue than eager to wreak havoc in his life. But he still didn’t move, even when one of the tired patrons asked him if he was getting on. He didn’t reply to the older man.
He looked at his phone with wary brown eyes as it vibrated once more.
There’s no one home, Evander. What have you got to lose?
“Hey, man! You getting on or not?” the old man didn’t try to hide the aggravation in his voice as he addressed the young man with his head bent into his phone screen; an idiosyncratic sight in this decade. He would’ve just hit the button on the automated system to keep going, but the kid seemed as if he was stuck or something. He was still as stone, his neck bending so that he could see whatever was on his phone; the old man could’ve made his own assumptions as to what he was doing if he cared enough, but he found he could not take his eyes off of him. “Kid, you okay?” he called out. He stretched his neck as to see his face, but it was impossible to get a good view with the seatbelt fastening him in place. He shook his head dismissively, and the doors to the bus shut.
Loc barely noticed the bus roll away. He looked up from his phone screen. Tears rimmed his eyes as the tip of his nose reddened. He bit on his thumb and shut his eyes tight; tears ran down his cheeks, his chest heaving as he suppressed a sob that would’ve garnered the attention of every person behind every wall and window in a thirty yard radius. His shoulders trembled, but his hands were steady as he typed a message to Harriet:
Wat do u want me 2 do?
| * |
“Sure, but when, Darren?”
“I can’t tell them yet, you know how my parents are.”
Julian scoffed and folded his arms, his handsome face turned up in a disbelieving frown as Darren shrugged. They were separated by their holo skins and about nine hundred miles of bandwidth, but Darren could feel the anger his boyfriend was exuding as potently as if they were sitting in his room together.
“You can’t keep using that excuse, Darren,” Julian fumed. “We’ve been together for nine months now, and I refuse to keep being shrugged off because you’re afraid of disappointing your parents.” His eyes softened and his voice became silk. “If they really love you, they’ll accept you for who you are and they’ll support our relationship.”
Darren shook his head, “It’s not that simple, Julian. It was easy for you, your parents are cool like that. They aren’t preachers, they didn’t have an arsenal of Bible scriptures to tell you how invalid your life was and what to expect at the end.”
“So, your parents love Christianity more than they love you now?” his tone dripped bitterness. Darren frowned and heaved a great sigh.
“No, but when it’s literally their entire lives and the foundation of their household, don’t you think they’ll feel some type of way when they find out their only child and son, nonetheless, is gay?”
“So, you’ll never tell them because their supposed faith is worth more to you than being yourself? Am I getting this right?”
“Julian, you just don’t get it-“
“And what will that leave me then, Darren? You gonna get married, have a bunch of kids, and where will I be? Your secret lover you sneak off to meet on business trips with the church? The one you’ll deny until you die in a hundred years? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Darren put his cheek on his fist, staring at Julian with a stoic impression. He blinked and didn’t move his fist even as he spoke, “You’re such a drama queen, Jules. It’s not like I won’t tell them; I can’t keep living a lie for all my life.”
“But you’re willing to live one while in this relationship.”
“Stop it. You know I love you.”
“Do you, Darren? Cause it sure doesn’t seem like it.”
“What do you want me to do? This isn’t easy for me, Julian!” Darren quieted down, his lips forming a thin line as he contained what was going to be a yell loud enough to wake his parents. The time in the corner of his holo said that it was nearly twelve-thirty in the morning.
“You are aware that this is my life, right?” he whispered heatedly, his eyes narrowing in a harsh glare.
“I am,” Julian replied with a snap. “That’s why I find it so important that you find the courage and the pride to admit to your parents that you’re gay and that you have a boyfriend. It’s not like they don’t know me already.”
“First off, they hardly know you. Secondly, you can’t keep equating this to my lack of pride or courage in myself to do this.” Darren hissed heatedly. “You don’t know what it’s like.” he finished in a slightly haunted whisper.
“Whatever, Darren.” Julian gave a yawn and stretched, bringing his arms up over his head. His boyfriend watched with interest, a small smile creeping up on his face, pushing back the melancholy in his eyes.
“You sleepy?” he asked with a smirk.
“Believe it or not, yeah,” Julian snarked. “I had three quizzes today and you have this penchant for trying to contact me after eleven for some ungodly reason. I don’t know why you do that, it’s not like we don’t live in the same time-zone.”
“ My mind is more active at night, and I like seeing you right before I go to bed. Your cute self.”
Julian drew up his lip. “Right,” he harrumphed.
“You mad at me?” Darren asked with a pout. There was some level of seriousness to the playful question, and he hoped Julian wouldn’t be able to see the worry laced in his hazel eyes. He so didn’t want to mess up his first real relationship, especially with someone as attractive and experienced as Julian. Even though his holo-can cameras were shit, he could perfectly see that pore-less, mocha skin; those enchanting greenish eyes, and all those sable curls contained in a perfect pineapple. He was absolutely breathtaking, especially when he gave him that sidelong stare that both chilled and warmed him.
“No, more disappointed than anything,” he replied noncommittally. Darren tried to pretend that his tone and choice of words didn’t spear his heart by brightening his smile. “I think it’s time for bed.” He punctuated his sentence with another yawn.
“Yeah, probably,” Darren whispered.
“You sleepy yet?”
“No, but I’ll find something-“ He was interrupted by the ding of his messenger app.
“Something like what?” Julian asked, suddenly less sleepy than he had made himself out to be just a few seconds before. Darren shrugged as he gestured for the message to open. He quirked his eyebrow as he read.
“What’s it say? Who’s it from?” Loaded curiosity was evident in Julian’s voice.
“It’s from Loc,” Darren replied without looking up. “Says ’Omw. B there in 15.’”
“Late night plans?” There was note of jealousy in Julian’s snappy voice that Darren did not miss, but ignored nonetheless.
“Not that I know of; he probably got lonely at the house by himself again.” He said as if to appease his boyfriend, but couldn’t shake the feeling of there being another reason for this late night visit. He apparently didn’t sound all that convincing to Julian either.
“Hmph, what for? He should be having tons of fun at home by himself. What’s he coming over there for?”
“Will you calm down? Loc is my cousin-“
“Not by blood, he isn’t!”
“Well, I’m pretty damn sure he’s straight, so quit acting.”
Julian folded his arms and looked away with a pout. Darren watched him for a moment, allowing a smirk to creep onto his face. Julian, feeling eyes on him, turned to glare in the younger guy’s face.
“What?” he snapped.
“You’re so cute when you’re jealous.”
He fluttered his long eyelashes with a playful air and smiled smugly. “I’m cute all the time, honey.”
Darren chuckled, “Yes, you are. I thought you were sleepy though.”
“I am, messing with you and your mess. Keeping me up.”
“Then go to sleep, nut. You obviously need all your beauty rest.”
“What you trying to say?” Julian cocked a neat eyebrow at him.
“Nothing; just that you need to get your beauty rest.”
“So, I’m ugly then.”
“Oh my goodness!” Darren exclaimed as quietly as he could. “Go to sleep, Julian.”
“Hmph. Night, have fun with your ‘cousin’.”
Darren rolled his eyes and shook his head. “Goodnight. Love you.”
Julian disconnected them with a decisive finger, leaving Darren to look at the call history between them. This conversation had only been a bit over thirty minutes. He crooked his index finger and scrolled up through the timestamps, watching as the numbers told a worrying story in reverse. Going back in time: forty-five minutes, an hour, two hours; back in the premier days of their relationship they would spend entire nights talking; falling asleep as the sun peeked over the horizon. Darren sighed as he was engulfed in the memories of those days, sweet as simple syrup; back when there had been no pressure to come out; hints, sure, but the older boy’s understanding trumped whatever urge to have his young lover expose himself so fully to his family. Julian had been considerate of him as an inexperienced boyfriend, but as the cupcake phase faded away so had that facet of Julian.
Darren leaned against his pillow, his holo-can in his lap and his head against the top of the backboard. He shook his head and bade those thoughts out of his mind. I got no business thinking like that, he mentally scolded himself. Julian just wants what’s best for me. He had been there before, scared and unsure of the future. Darren tried in vain to dismiss his anxious feelings for Julian,
He just wants me to have an open and honest relationship with my parents, no matter what they believe in. He knew what was best… Right?
Ping! Another message from his cousin grabbed his attention. Outside. Open ur window.
Hmm, no gif this time? With a vague feeling of trepidation, Darren placed his holo-can on his bedside drawer, then slid off the bed to the window. Sitting in the old oak on one of the branches that stretched far enough to lightly scratch his windowsill was his favorite cousin Loc, who was staring at him intently as he switched off the alarm on his window and pulled it up. Loc didn’t say anything as he crawled out on a limb, the branch trapped tightly between his thighs as his arms dragged him forward. On closer inspection, Darren could see a fine sheen of sweat coated on his face, as if he had run all the way here. His cousin gripped the edge of the windowsill and propelled himself further into the room with a swift kick off from the tree branch. Darren helped him get completely inside, taking him by the underarms and pulling his wet body into the room. Loc panted loudly as his body collided with the carpeted floor, his back rising and falling at a rapid pace until he was able to calm down enough to sit up.
“Damn, man,” Darren chuckled. “You ain’t never heard of a door before? You probably scared all the neighbors half to death runnin’ round, climbin’ other niggas’ trees n’ shit.”
Loc didn’t reply, still trying to catch his breath. He sat on the back of his legs, his hands on his knees and his neck bent so that Darren couldn’t see his face. Darren stooped down to one knee, trying to get a look at his cousin.
“You alright, man? Where’s your inhaler?”
Loc gave a weak shrug as he began to wheeze.
“Shit, Loc.” Darren stood and went to his bedside drawer and opened the first compartment. He only had to fish through the contents for a moment before he found the spare inhaler he had taken to having just in case Loc lost or forgot his own. He peered at the LED and was happy to find that there was a little more than half in it. “Here, dude. I got you.” He quickly went to give it to him.
Loc managed a grateful half-smile as he took the inhaler and puffed once, twice, three times, taking breaths between each one. When his breath had been successfully caught, he reached out for Darren to help him up, who was unhesitant in his response. The cousins stood with their hands locked in one fist, both staring into the eyes of the other without saying a word. They stayed like this, reading each other silently, until Loc broke the seemingly telepathic bond with a blunt declaration.
“I’m leaving, bro,” he said, dropping his hand from their embrace. Darren blinked at him, then smiled in amusement.
“Where you going?”
“This place called Exodus. It’s on another planet.”
Darren didn’t even try to bite back his laughter, and bent at the waist as he slapped at his knees, his hastily hushed guffaws just kissing the edges of loudness.“Another planet, Loc? Really? What you been smokin, cuz?”
“Listen, I don’t expect you to believe me, but seeing as you’re my best friend and cousin, it’s only right that you at least know what’s up.”
“So, how you gon’ get there, man? You got a rocket ship or some- Oh shit! Did you get in with SpaceX and-”
“No. There’s a portal taking a select group of us to Exodus tonight, and we’re definitely not going to some dusty ball.”
Darren’s mirth fluttered away as he observed Loc’s stony expression.
“Really?” he asked in a more serious tone.
“Have I ever lied to you, Darren? Why would I start now?”
“No, no. I just find this extremely hard to believe.”
Loc shrugged. “I get it, and sorry for springing this up so suddenly. I just wanted to let you know. You’d be the only one to ever miss me.” His eyes betrayed an ever-present feeling of loneliness before steeling over with resolve; “I’d never forgive myself if I just left you hangin’.”
“Heh… so where is this magical portal? Who told you about it? How’d you even get to be in what I am sure is an extremely secretive ‘select group’?”
“Darren, I didn’t come here to discuss this with you-“
“You don’t think I deserve to know? If I’m seriously going to be the only person you tell, you’d better start answering my questions, Loc.” His voice was quiet, but left no room for argument.
“I don’t have time to answer all that; Harriet only gave me enough time to say my goodbyes to you. I’ve said my goodbyes, now I have to go-“
“Wait what? Who the fuck is Harriet?!”
“I have to go,” Loc reiterated with an irritated roll of his eyes. He turned to go back out the window, but was stopped by Darren grabbing his shoulder.
“I’m coming with you.”
“No, you’re not. Listen, this isn’t for you, there are people who care about you and are expecting you to be here in the morning. I can’t let you come with me.”
“But I care about you, Loc. We’re family, bro, I won’t let you do this by yourself. Especially if you’re trying to hyperjump off to other planets or some shit.”
Loc looked at him with furrowed brows, but he said nothing. Darren gulped and exclaimed emotively,
“I love you, bruh.”
His cousin just stared at him for a moment, but soon a small smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
“I love you too, fam.” There was a quick pause as Loc gave a conceding sigh and nodded. “But you turn around and come back home the second I’m gone, you got it? And you’d better leave a fucking note in case your parents wake up before you get back.”
“Okay, okay… as long as we use the front door to leave.”