[WP] Before your close friend died, he told you to clear his browser history. Once he died, you went along with the joke and opened his browser history. That was when you learned the truth and the reason why you are now hiding from international government agencies in an abandoned building.

Everyone hits that moment of reckoning in their life when they find out who their real friends are. For Alexie, it was lying on her belly in an abandoned warehouse, face in the gravel, while a swarm of FBI boys buzzed in, their lights bouncing on every wall. And she knew who her real friend was, now more than ever: Scooter Bates, her best friend growing up, his goofy smile ever-present. Except now he was six feet underground and couldn’t even manage to save his own self, so Alexie imagined he couldn’t help her, either.

“Goddammit, Scooter,” Alexie hissed under her breath. Dirt gritted in her teeth.

Fucking Scooter. Always getting himself into shit he couldn’t understand.

Now we’re both here, pal.

The lights danced on the ceiling. All those flashlight beams, hunting her out like sharks in the deep.

Alexie pressed her face down and tried to breathe evenly. The warehouse was barren. Even if she got out, she had no idea where the hell she’d run to. She was spooked enough when she pulled up to park a few streets away, but this was a dark, dead end of town. The old industrial district, turned into a graveyard after the last recession. Even if she ran, it would be hard to miss the only idiot sprinting down the street in the middle of the night, Scooter’s backpack clanging against her back.

The voices picked up again, and they weren’t bothering to be quiet. “Let’s get the fucking thing and get out of here,” came a gruff and growling woman’s voice.

“Easy, Beck.” The reply was male, and he had an easy-cello lilt to his voice. Smooth and deep and unbothered. “All those years in the academy and you can’t outsmart a dead kid?”

“You sure couldn’t outsmart a living one,” the woman muttered back.

Alexie didn’t dare move. The warehouse was massive, and she was up on the second floor, where the iron floors were disintegrating from every open dripping leak in the ceiling. How had her life changed so much in just a handful of days, shifting through her fingers like sand lost from an hourglass?

On Monday, Scooter went missing. She got an email from him that said If I don’t make it back, here’s what you have to do with a list of his passwords, instructions to clear his search history, everything. No frantic texts or calls or emails got a response. He had gone grave-silent.

But the most important instruction rang out through Alexie’s mind, over and over: don’t tell anyone you received this. If they catch you, they’ll kill you.

On Tuesday, the cops found Scooter dead. Floating face-down in the river. Eighteen-year-old boys don’t die every day, but they still found some way to shrug it off.

On Wednesday, Alexie was shattered and sobbing. Trying to convince herself it was all just a horrible dream.

On Thursday, as Scooter’s family gathered in his home after the funeral, Alexie slipped upstairs and carried out Scooter’s final wishes. But not before she saw the truth. Before she saw everything.

You’re the only one I trust to bring me back, he had said.

The warehouse. The plan. The backpack. All of it. The fossils of Scooter’s final hours, waiting to be pieced back together again.

She needed to know. He needed her to know.

And on Friday, Alexie ended up here. A good twenty miles from anywhere, deep in the abandoned harbors of the industrial district. She kicked open a mostly-broken window and wriggled her way in with a crunch of glass.

Down below, the cops kept talking as they swept the building. They yanked open rusty lockers, kicked over floorboards with their feet. Alexie tried to slow her breathing, tried not to panic. It had to be a good sign, if they didn’t know she was there. She could stay pressed up here like a mouse between these crates and the wall, as long as they didn’t notice her footprints in the dust and gravel. As long as they didn’t find where she had discovered the backpack below a hole in the ceiling, half-covered with scattered leaves that she kicked out of the way.

The cops kept murmuring back and forth. Even though there were at least four flashlight beams that she could count, it seemed that the two who kept speaking were the ones in charge.

The man’s voice plucked up again, “Did anyone find that girl yet?”

Alexie’s belly pitched toward her toes. She clutched Scooter’s backpack even tighter. There was something heavy in it, round and cold, but she was too frightened to risk unzipping the pack now. Hell of a stupid thing to die for: a zipper hissing at the wrong time.

“We have an officer stationed outside the house,” the woman answered. Her voice was cold and calculating as a knife. “When she gets there, we’ll know.”

“Shit,” Alexie whispered to herself, no louder than a breath. She backed herself up into the corner and looked in all directions. The flashlights were moving away from the stairs leading up, but she couldn’t be that lucky for long. They were taking their time. Combing over the building space by space.

“Does she know yet?” the man said.

Silence unwound itself between them. So thick and coiled it seemed to constrict itself around her neck, thinning the very air in her lungs.

Someone cleared the kid’s browser history,” the woman answered, evenly. “NSA skimmed the emails he sent her. If she finds it, we’ll know.”

“Hell of a strategy, Sarge.”

“You got a better one?”

“Better than crossing my fingers and hoping some college kid doesn’t stumble upon a fucking inter-dimensional quantum weapon?” He laughed, smooth as caramel. “I guess that’s why you’re the one in charge.”

“Sarcasm won’t find shit, Davidson,” the woman snapped back.

Alexie’s pulse thrummed so loud she was certain they would hear it all the way down there. She clutched tight at the backpack as she stood up, slowly, still pressing her back to the wall. She tried to move like a shadow, just standing up as much as she needed to in order to make out the shapes of the officers, moving away in the dark.

But then something in the bag clicked. The shape within it moved, just slightly.

The whine started first. High and constant, fading like the first sharp peal of a dog whistle. Down below, the officers snapped their heads around like hunting dogs, hot on a scent.

“What the hell was that?” the man, Davidson, said.

The bottom of Scooter’s backpack started to glow with hot white light.

Alexie turned it away from her, just in time to see all the officers’ faces, snap toward her. The light fell upon them like a spotlight.

And then, a hot wall of light knifed out of the bag. It leapt like a lightning bolt, chasing across the open air, tearing it open as it went. Alexie couldn’t make sense of what she saw.

Space hung in tatters, as if it was a cheap backdrop, torn open, open as a hungry mouth. Around the edges of reality she always knew, unreality glowed and hum. A brilliant sparkling green, deep as the universe, calling her home.

Davidson barked a laugh. “Oh, look,” he said. “She found it.”

And you found me, Alexie wanted to sputter back. The backpack was hot and smoldering in her hands, the bottom completely burnt through.

But instead she only managed a weak, empty, “Can you officers help me out? I think I got lost.”

Scooter might have laughed, maybe. If he was here. Funny. Alexie could swear she could hear him, laughing through the void below.

The officers lunged for the stairs. The woman–must have been the sergeant–let out rapid-fire orders. “I don’t care if she’s a fucking kid, if she runs, you shoot.”

Alexie stared down into the impossible holes in space, just below her. And, for a moment, Scooter was real as anything beside her. Cool and casual and unimpressed, just like always. He leaned his elbows against the rusted railing of the platform and told her, “Jump.”

Alexie went dizzy with disbelief. “What?

“You got this far. Don’t stop now. Jump.” He stepped up onto the guardrail, his whole body shimmering, a ghostly illusion, shining back the churning ocean of green light below. He held out a hand to her and smiled. “You can’t stop now. You’ve almost found me.”

Alexie reached for his hand, and he vanished, like smoke scattering. She stepped up on the guardrail and hesitated there, swaying. Every animal instinct in her brain screamed at her to jump down.

But she didn’t get to make the choice herself. A gunshot cracked against the wall just above her head, and she jolted and pitched forward, screaming.

She plunged down into the hole in the universe.


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