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As Bright as the Stars

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The bus lurched, and it sent her tumbling forward so that she had to brace her hand on the back of the seat in front of her. Her bag dropped to the floor with an unceremonious thump, and the fingers on her other hand clutched around her phone, which threatened to leap from her grasp and dash itself against the dusty bus floor.

She furrowed her brow, picking up her bag and tucking it back in her lap before she shifted her unruly hair back out of her face. She was really beginning to hate riding the bus. This was the third time this week that the driver had hit that pothole, and every time she had almost cracked her head against the railing on the seat in front of her. Public transit was supposed to be safer than driving these days, but her experience on this particular bus was proving that untrue.

She settled back in the seat, sliding so that her knees touched the back of the bench in front of her. A yawn worked its way up and out of her throat, and she blinked away the urge to sleep. Heaven only knew what would happen if she dozed off on the death bus! She shook her head, a wave of her red hair ghosting across her cheek before she irritably brushed it away. She wrinkled her nose, wondering how frizzy it had gotten while she jostled around. The static from the plastic seats always wreaked havoc on her already ill tempered hair, and it was always impossible to do anything with afterward. Although, it wasn’t as though she had anything worth looking nice for at the end of the day, anyhow. Netflix and Steam didn’t ask her to look pretty, only to input her credit card number when required.

Ignoring the urge to get up and scream just to instigate something interesting happening in her life, she held her phone up in front of her face and swiped the little cat icon on the screen to the left, unlocking it.

Then she paused, because she didn’t quite know what she wanted to do with her time. She could be productive, and try to read from one of the dry textbooks downloaded onto her Kindle. She could also pick back up where she had left off in that sci-fi novel about the lonely planet, but it had been so long since she had the time to read it that she wasn’t confident she remembered what was happening anymore. If she dug out her headphones she could listen to a podcast, or maybe the sonata that she was supposed to be practicing later, but right now sitting up and rummaging through her bag sounded like an inordinate amount of work. What did that leave her? She tapped the side of the phone, staring at the little rounded squares that displayed all the options at her disposal. Puzzle game? Dating sim? She didn’t have anyone that she could text, and after the disaster that had happened three weeks ago she had been avoiding Facebook completely. The animosity that she found there made the entire place unsavory.

A chime echoed out of the speaker on the phone, and a bright blue square popped up in the center notifying her that she had a new email. The notification didn’t specify what the email was, which was odd, but she didn’t pause long to think about it. Her finger tapped over the envelope icon, pulling up her inbox. It was probably just another spam message, but at the very least it could provide a momentary distraction from the boredom of a grueling commute. Maybe if it was one of those scam emails she would mess around with the guy first. She had once claimed to be a Nigerian prince’s wife, sitting at home waiting for him to return. It had been hilarious to watch the scammer go from adamant denial to confused acceptance as he promised to rush home and help with the cooking, if only she wouldn’t divorce him. She had no idea if the man was actually married, but by the end of their conversation he had at least believed that he was, and that had been a great victory for her.

The new message was waiting for her at the top of her old ones. She tried not to look at the subject lines below, listing all the friends she no longer had. She should just delete them. They hung around in her inbox like ghosts, reminding her of all the people that she had thought loved her, reminding her of just how lonely she had become after her move. She swallowed, and the air in her throat seemed to stick to the back of her tongue like glue. Ignore it, Nicky. They aren’t worth any more tears.

The new email didn’t seem to have a sender, which was stranger still, but she was so distracted by the subject that she didn’t dwell on it.

 

Bored? Lonely? Read on.

 

What a strange way to title an email. Also eerily appropriate, considering the day she was having, although that had to just be coincidence. She was fairly certain that the internet had not become a sentient being, reaching out to ease her woes on the long, lonely commute. She tapped the message and it opened up, expanding to fill the screen. There was a small logo of a green eye at the top, that looked like some sort of Egyptian design. It was pretty, in a way, but not any kind of brand that she recognized. The font of the message was bold, with big blocky letters that looked like a marquee.

 

Meet new and exciting people! Accomplish your dreams! Find Paradise! Anything is possible with the new RFA messenger program! Download today to unlock the secret purpose of your life!

 

What a weird advertisement. What did that even mean, to find paradise? She smirked as she stared at the download link. How was a messenger app supposed to “unlock the secret purpose of her life”? She was convinced that her life, of all lives, had no secret purpose. Except maybe to fail at her next solo performance, but that wasn’t exactly a secret purpose. There was a small chibi figure dancing next to the link offering the download for the app, a burst of balloons flying out of his pockets with every new loop. He looked like a blank avatar picture that had sprung to life.

She looked at the clock in the top corner of her phone. 7:32 pm. She had to bite her lip to stifle the groan that tried to jump out of her throat as she realized she still had another hour before she reached her stop. She really needed to find a way to move closer to the school. At least she would be on break for the next two weeks, but that just meant she had that many days to dread the long hours of practice and study that would start when she would return. Plus, the promise of resting for a few days didn’t change the fact that she was stuck on this bus for the foreseeable future, and didn’t have anything interesting to do.

The chibi figure bounced up and down, taunting her. What the hell. If it’s a virus I’ll just wipe the phone and start over, it’s not like I have any memories on it worth saving.

She hit the link, and then her phone screen flashed, the briefest flicker of green before it returned to normal, although the email closed out and disappeared. Oh no, that definitely wasn’t good. She waited, certain that the phone-based apocalypse was about to spring from her device, but nothing further happened. She narrowed her eyes, as though the phone could be goaded by her suspicion. Maybe this had been a bad idea…worse still, the download hadn’t started, so it hadn’t even been a good waste of time.

She tapped the little trashcan symbol, looking for the email to try the link again, because if she was in for a penny she was in for a pound. Empty? No messages. It had vanished. She tried her spam folder, then her archived folder. Frenzied, she flipped through every different category in her mail program, but the message had vanished without a trace. That did not make her any more confident about her decision to tap that link.

She closed the app, and was about to close out her phone and stare out the window with the morose dedication of someone who makes terrible life decisions, but before the screen went dark a small spot of unfamiliar color caught her eye.

A new app.

It was labeled only as RFA, the letters placed on a dark brown background like stained mahogany. Around them rested a delicate gold filigree, curving to take up some of the blank space in the square. She stared at it, and she had the strangest feeling that it was staring back at her, singing some sort of silent siren song that beckoned her to open it.

In for a penny, in for a pound.

She opened the app, and her screen was filled with cascading lines of green code on a black background. It made an urgent beeping noise for a second, then went completely silent again. There was a white bar at the bottom, with the word “send” written on a button next to it. A speech bubble hovered on the bottom of the screen just above that, with three dots blinking in an orderly succession.

She had seen that before, in every other instant messaging app she had ever used. Someone was sending her a message.

 

Unknown: Hello? Is …Is anybody there?

 

She waited, watching the the faceless silhouette next to the words. She drummed her finger along the side of her phone, chewing on her lower lip.

 

Unknown: Hello? Please respond, I don ’t bite! :)

 

She smiled in spite of herself. She was in for a lot more than a penny or a pound at this point, but the clock told her that she had only wasted ten minutes since she had last checked it, and she had already made one stupid decision so she might as well continue the theme. She typed out a response, her fingers feeling like rubber weights over the small, digital keyboard. When she hit send, she was alarmed to note that her name popped up next to the response, along with a picture of her. It was one where most of her face was hidden behind a violin, nothing but her hazel eyes peering over the top, but it was still her face. A tremor of fear flickered across her nerves.

 

Nicolette: Hello? Are you here looking for your secret purpose too? :3

 

There was no hesitation on the other end, and a speech bubble popped up in an instant, followed by rapid fire messages that made her head spin with how fast the person on the other end must be typing.

 

Unknown: Oh, thank goodness, I ’ve been trying to find someone for ages!

Unknown: Listen, can I ask for your help?

Unknown: Normally I wouldn ’t do this but…

Unknown: I found this phone, and the only thing on it seems to be this app and an address.

Unknown: I really want to return it, to make sure it gets back to it s home.

Unknown: Will you help me?

 

She had absolutely no good reason for believing this story, or responding, but for some reason her fingers started hitting the keys again.

 

Nicolette: Um …how?

Nicolette: Also, if this is a trick to rob me you should know I am totally broke right now.

 

He was fast to respond again.

 

Unknown: No trick! I just really want to make sure this phone gets returned, it looks very expensive.

Unknown: If you can help, I thought you might be able to go to the address listed here, and leave a note or something.

Unknown: I would go myself, but I ’m trapped at work! :(

Unknown: I pulled it up on the map, and it ’s in an apartment building not far from downtown. It should be totally safe since it’s so public.

 

She tapped her foot against the legs of her seat. She sat up, leaning forward as though if she brought her face closer to the phone it would tell her what decision she should make. On the one hand, she had no idea who this person was, no idea if they were honest, no idea where this app came from, no idea if she were about to be brutally murdered by going to that address. On the other hand…if they were being honest, she would hate to think that someone would lose an expensive phone forever. Most people kept a lot of important things on their phones these days, and to a lot of people losing that would be like losing their life.

 

Nicolette: What ’s the address?

 

The speech bubble blinked for a second, and then a link to Google Maps popped up. She clicked it, and the phone switched over to the map display, showing her the location of the apartment. She looked it over, and her heart did a strange dance against her ribs when she realized it wasn’t far from her. Ash Street…she glanced up, and looked at the display on the bus showing the name of the next stop. The apartment was only a few blocks from there! She could get off and walk to it in less time than it would take her to get home if she stayed.

The mystery messenger hadn’t lied, either. The apartment was in a good neighborhood, not far from the high-rise infested center of the business district. It certainly wasn’t the type of place she would expect to be lured to if she were going to be horribly murdered by technologically advanced ninjas. Or whoever had made this app.

 

Nicolette: Alright, I ’ll go, but if I get murdered I’m coming back to haunt you.

Unknown: ^^

Unknown: T

Unknown: H

Unknown: A

Unknown: N

Unknown: K

Unknown: YOU!

 

He said nothing further after that, so she put her phone to sleep and gathered her things, pulling on the cord above her head to indicate she wanted to get off at the next stop. Her head was spinning, and she felt like she had ants marching around in her veins from her nerves, but she was also a little thrilled by it. It was something different, something that wasn’t the same old bowl of ramen as she sat on her couch and wondered if loneliness could crush a person to death. Who knew, maybe she could actually meet interesting people through this app. Maybe she would become friends with Unknown, and they could go around town doing good deeds by returning wayward electronic devices to their besotted owners.

She rolled her eyes at herself, fully aware that she had a ridiculous imagination and a tenuous grasp on reality, at best.

The bus pulled into the stop, and she jumped out of her seat and skipped down the aisle. Waving an exuberant goodbye to the driver, she leaped over the stairs and landed squarely on the concrete, her flat-tops making a squeaking sound as they scuffed against the ground. The door behind her slapped shut, the driver scowling at her like joy and happiness were against his religion. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and winked at him, and he pressed down on the gas and rumbled away and out of sight. Smirking, she made her way around the corner, following the map towards her unfamiliar destination.

 The building was much nicer than she had expected, and she had expected nice considering the part of town. She stood in front of the lobby door, staring straight up into the sky as the towering architecture dwarfed her small frame. It was a monolith of crystalline glass and polished chrome, reflecting the lights of the city around it. Those living within didn’t seem to be using any light if they were home, and so the darkened windows mirrored the night sky, turning it into a column of stars in the middle of the urban jungle. She tilted her head back to a normal angle, wincing as her muscles reminded her she was not meant to gaze in that position for quite so long, and peered through the doors into the lobby. She saw a row of perfectly clean mailboxes, a plush blue carpet, and gleaming elevator doors. There was no attendant to be found, which seemed odd for such a luxurious building. She pulled up her phone and checked the address for the millionth time, confirming the apartment number. 1701. Unless the building defied standard conventions, that would put her destination on the 17th floor. That was a long way up from where she stood now.

Her throat felt dry, but she steeled her nerves and took a step forward, ignoring the jello that had suddenly appeared in her knees and made her want to topple over. The handle on the doors was cold in the wintry air, and she realized that her palms had been sweating as she wrapped her fingers around the smooth metal. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. She was just leaving a note, why on earth was she so nervous? Nothing could possibly be that sinister in a building this beautiful, could it?

She flung the door open with a stronger sense of purpose, walked across the lobby, and mashed the elevator button. A musical chime floated through the room as it lit up, blinking to indicate its activation. The faintest whir of air and well maintained mechanics filled the room, and within moments the elevator chimed again as the doors slid open. Inside was an elegant marble floor, brushed silver walls, and lights on both the ceiling and the floor, creating a bright and welcoming space. She hesitated for a second, straining her ears and trying so let her senses take in the atmosphere, to see if she should run. Other than a general feeling of unease, she could detect no danger.

She didn’t belong in places this nice. That Unknown person must have been right about that phone being expensive, if it belonged to someone that lived here. She walked in before the elevator could change its mind and deny her access, and pushed the button for the 17th floor. It went up as high as the 20th, and she wondered if the units got more expensive as they grew closer to the sky. Gravity tugged at her stomach as she ascended through the levels, and she fiddled with the hem of her shirt. There was a small tear in the corner, where the fabric had frayed. She wished that she had dressed nicer, but she hadn’t planned on running errands to a place about a thousand times above her pay grade. Of course, a pay grade of zero multiplied by a thousand would still be zero, but she couldn’t be bothered to come up with a more accurate math joke at the moment.

The music chimed again, and the doors slip open without a sound. She popped her head out and looked up and down the hallway, rows of solid white doors standing at attention along the sky blue walls. She stepped out of the elevator and let it close behind her, her feet completely muffled by more carpet the color of the ocean at midnight. Silver numbers were placed perfectly on the fronts of the doors, and a silver plaque directly in front of her face indicated that numbers above 1750 were to her left, and numbers below it were to the right. She spun on her heel and marched to the right, all the way to the end of the hall.

Number 1701. It was the last one in the row, its handle shining in the soft light, a keypad just below showing a small, red light. From the window on the wall next to her, she could see the entire city spread out below, the view overlooking the park not far from where she was. She could see the muddled shapes of trees in the darkness, gently swaying in the late autumn breeze. They looked like they were dancing, their leaves the form of elegant dresses as they moved to the rhythm of the world around them, a waltz of moonlight to guide their footless steps.

She pulled up her phone, switching back over to the messenger app.

 

Nicolette: I ’m here, what do you want me to put on the note?

 

She bent her head, shifting her bag so that it was in front of her, and started digging around for a pen and paper. The app pinged.

 

Unknown: Is there a keypad lock on the door?

 

She put the pen she had found in her mouth and dropped her bag with, sighing around the plastic Bic between her teeth and abandoning the search for paper so that she could respond.

 

Nicolette: Yes, why?

Unknown: Enter the code 135.

 

Her jaw fell open, but no sound came out.

 

Nicolette: What?! Are you insane?

Nicolette: I can ’t just put in the code on some stranger’s house!

Nicolette: Why do you even have that code?!?!

Unknown: It was with the address! QQ

Unknown: Please, I don ’t think it’s enough to leave a note on the door.

Unknown: Just go inside for a second and see if you can find a way to contact the person.

Nicolette: Um …no?! I can’t just walk around somebody’s house!

Nicolette: We don ’t even know if anybody’s home!

Unknown: Then knock.

 

She scowled at the screen, the light casting strange shadows against her fingers. This is what she got for having faith in humanity, a complete lunatic who just wanted her to walk in unannounced to someone else’s home. She raised her hand and rapped her knuckles against the door, harder than she had meant to as she fumed at Unknown. She recoiled from the sound as it echoed down the quiet hallway, hoping that she hadn’t offended the person that lived there before even getting a word out of her mouth. She rolled her eyes at her own ineptitude. Ah, the quiet social grace of Nicolette Devie, ultimate people-person.

Her internal sarcasm was greeted by nothing more than her surly frown, as the door remained closed and the entire building remained silent. From what she could tell, no one stirred inside.

Her phone pinged again.

 

Unknown: Is anyone home?

Nicolette: …no. Unless they just don’t feel like answering their door.

Nicolette: WHICH IS PERFECTLY PLAUSIBLE.

Unknown: I know this is strange, but please

Unknown: This phone is REALLY expensive, I ’m worried that someone with impure intentions could find the note and try to contact me , and I would give it to the wrong person.

Unknown: But if you just leave it inside, then I can be sure the right person gets the message.

 

She frowned, possibly harder than she had ever frowned before. That…actually made a bit of sense. She didn’t have a great feeling about it, but she could understand why they might not want to leave a note out in the open. If the phone was as expensive looking as the apartment, she wouldn’t want to risk being swindled out of returning it to its rightful owner either. She kicked her foot against the door absently, mulling it over. She did want to help…and it wasn’t as though she was a thief, or had bad intentions. It might be somewhat creepy for the person to come back and find a note inside their house, but if she explained everything then it would be fine…probably. Besides, they would never be able to track her down, she was only going to leave Unknown’s information for them to find. She would just be the anonymous do-gooder…with creeptastic methods.

 

Unknown: Please

Unknown: I know you must be a good person because you got this far. Just a little further.

 

She sighed, knowing that she was a gullible idiot.

 

Nicolette: Fine, I ’m going in. Might I remind you, if I’m murdered, I WILL find you and haunt you.

Unknown: Noted. ^^

 

She pushed in the three digit code, and there was a metallic click before the light on the pad turned green. She palmed the handle, pushed down, and opened the door. She stepped inside and the door  eased shut behind her of its own accord, the oiled hinges as silent as the dead.

Inside was a smaller apartment than she had expected, with modern furnishings. There was a black leather couch in the corner, a computer desk against the wall with a very expensive looking chair beside it, and a modest kitchen with top of the line appliances. A potted plant stood in the corner next to the window, its leaves full of holes and wilted, like it had been left unattended for some time. A picture of a stunning sunset was hung on the wall above the couch, the frame meticulously hung so that it was level with the center of the massive windows dominating one wall of the room. Folders, papers, and binders were stacked all over just about every surface, aside from the couch and the kitchen counters.

She stood there, taking stock of the still and frozen scene for a few minutes, waiting for either a very pissed off dweller to emerge from the hallway or a large ax murder intent on turning her guts into gazpacho.

Nothing happened.

She lifted her phone up, intending to ask Unknown what they wanted written on the note, but the screen flashed again, and the app changed. The green letters disappeared from the background, and she found herself thrown in the middle of a chat room filled with people she had never heard of before. Somewhere in her head she reminded herself that this had all been a terrible decision, but it was too late to go back now.

In for a penny, in for a pound.