The Atlas Puzzle
Virgil Southwick stood at the magazine rack, flipping through the pages of a magazine idly. Here and there were a few people bustling around, their feet scuffing against the soft carpet of the book store. The atmosphere had a calmness to it that, even with the sound of a cashier checking someone out, could not be broken. Virgil looked up and glanced around the store. An old lady was walking through a selection of shelves, taking note of the titles, her brow furrowed. Behind her a man was looking at a reading tablet, 'flipping through pages' as it were. The old lady saw Virgil watching and after a moment of thought approached him.
"Excuse me, young man," she said. "But you seem to be of the same age as my grandson. I was wondering if you could help me with something?"
Virgil offered the old lady a polite smile. "Sure thing. What can I do for you?"
"My grandson has an interest in science-fiction and fantasy novels, but I'm afraid I don't have the sense to know what he likes." The old lady fidgeted slightly, looking a little bit embarrassed by the admission.
"It's no big deal," chuckled Virgil, trying to be helpful. "My own mom has that kind of problem with me too." He held out his arm for her and she looked at him with a raised eyebrow. "Why don't we head down to the science-fiction section to start with and see what we can dig up?"
"…All right," said the old lady, smiling a little at his offer of an arm. "Let's."
After she looped her hand around Virgil's arm the two trekked off to their appointed destination and stopped before the titles assembled before them.
"Craft of War is pretty good for anyone who wants a story of action," began Virgil, pointing out a title and pulling it off the bookshelf to show her. "I've never been a big fan of the cover-art, but the story's great. It involves a Prince being set on the throne for the first time after his father is assassinated and his female bodyguard helps him grow and become more independent. A lot of intrigue in here too."
Virgil set the book back on the shelf and pulled off another one. "This one is Bureau of Alien Investigations is also pretty good. Kind of like Fringe or the X-Files, only with a futuristic setting."
"I remember the X-Files," nodded the old lady, eyeing the boy critically. "I used to watch it a lot with my husband. I didn't think much of it, but he thought it was the best thing to ever grace television."
Virgil grinned. "Well, this story has less of the horror elements. To be honest, I've always thought of it as more of a CIA in space kind of story, but it has some interesting suspenseful plots that give it a bit more edge. Plus the characters are always a hoot." Virgil laughed. "One of the main characters is always trying to prove that there's no such thing as aliens and he lives in a time where aliens are commonplace. Can you believe that?"
The old lady could barely repress a smile, but she pointed to another story. "What about this one?"
"The Green River." Virgil frowned slightly. "Huh. That's a fantasy story. I wonder why that's over here." Pulling it off the shelf he looked it over. "This is a different take on the usual fantasy story. It's pretty far from the usual Tolkien-ish stuff. No hobbits, no Orcs, some elves. There's an ancient conspiracy but no prophecy and no 'Dark Lord' either. It's pretty fun filled, and it's gotten rave reviews in the 'Visions of Worlds' magazine." Virgil held up the magazine that he had been reading earlier. "I was just looking it over now."
"Hmmm…" The old lady stared at the book and held out her hand for it. Virgil handed it to her and she looked it over. The cover was simple. A scene of a small village sitting next to a crystal-clear river amidst a hilly countryside. In the distance there was a dark cloud perhaps smoke, rising into the sky. "I think I'll get him this one." She looked up at Virgil and smiled. "Thank you for your assistance young man."
Virgil smiled back. "You're welcome."
The old lady departed and Virgil watched her go for a moment before turning back to the bookshelf, picking out the one titled 'Bureau of Alien Investigations'. He looked at it with an anxious look. He pressed his tongue in between his teeth, his brow furrowing as though in deep thought. After a moment he turned away and went over to the fantasy section and pulled out a book titled Dancing with Werewolves. He began flipping through the pages.
He stood there for a few minutes, keeping an eye on customers as they went back and forth between the shelves, books in hand. He closed his eyes, counted to three, and then left the fantasy section.
He wandered the bookstore for a few moments before finally heading towards the exit. He swallowed as he approached the scanners that sat there, and he could feel his heart banging within his chest every step of the way, getting worse with every step.
Just hang on there, he thought. Just hang on.
He blinked and took a deep breath. The air felt like it was weighing down on him like a wet blanket, all but suffocating him. But he was almost there. Almost…
Virgil passed through the scanners and stepped out into the freedom of the open mall. Shoppers brushed by him, taking no note of him as they went to their intended destinations. The familiar face of the old lady he had helped appeared next to him a second later, and she waved at him, again thanking him for his assistance. Smiling nervously, Virgil waved back and upon her disappearing into the crowd he took a deep breath and exhaled audibly before turning in the opposite direction and doing the same.
His eyes darted from one person to the next before spying the wonderful sight of a Men's room sign. He quickly made his way over to it and ducked inside.
The door to a bathroom stall slammed shut and Virgil was quick to lock it. He all but fell back onto the toilet, his still clothed legs shaking in fear.
I did it, he thought, breathing in and out heavily. I really, totally…
He raised one hand, and the book he had pulled off the shelf in the book store, Dancing with Werewolves, materialized in its grasp.
I'm a thief.
Virgil splashed water on his face. The sense of accomplishment he had felt earlier had been quickly replaced by one of revulsion. He splashed more water on his face, trying to drown the feeling out, but it stubbornly stuck with him, He felt sick. The shakes in his legs were gone, but it did little to improve his mood.
He noticed the book sitting on the long, marble sink and he quickly looked away, turning up towards his face in the mirror. Small droplets of water ran down his thin, bony cheeks and fell into the sink. The bangs of his light brown hair was matted against his forehead, causing more water to run down his face in small rivulets while still more hung at the tips of hair that did not cling to him, hanging there like Christmas ornaments. His face was pale and ashen, the sort of color that would make people think 'zombie' if they saw him. He gulped.
All in all, he looked about as good as he felt, which was to say terrible.
Oh God… His legs shuddered a little as he slumped downward. What am I going to do?
The bathroom door abruptly opened and Virgil felt a stab of panic flash through him. He grabbed the book and began counting to three as a man wearing a blue and white striped shirt entered.
The man headed towards the closest open urinal, only to pause when he heard an odd sound that was eerily like…running?
The man glanced around as the door slowly shut, but there was nothing more than an empty bathroom to greet him. The sound disappeared almost as quickly as it had appeared and the man shrugged it off.
Virgil appeared out of thin air next to the Men's Room door, magazine in hand and breathing heavily again.
I need to calm down. I need to find somewhere to crash for a bit.
Deciding that the mall's food court would be the best place to gather his wits he began to shakily walk in its direction. As he did so he looked at the book. Its cover was a bit wrinkled now from having been splashed by water, but it wasn't too bad. Certainly nothing that would be immediately noticeable, provided that a person wasn't the sort to pay attention to that sort of thing. Certainly he wouldn't care too much.
Most of my things are a bit banged up anyway, he mused. He grimaced. The thought was quick to remind him that the book was not his.
"Treat others things as you would want them to treat yours," came the voice of his father as he made it to the food court. There were more people there and plenty of restaurants to choose from. His stomach growled.
How much money do I have? He pulled out his wallet and found a twenty dollar bill. He closed his eyes.
Damn it… I can't do this.
Turning, he began to trace his path back towards the bookstore.
Within short order, Virgil found himself nearing the entrance to the bookstore. Small tremors returned to his legs and his grip on the book felt a little less sure.
I can do this. I… His yellowish eyes widened slightly as he approached. Oh shit. The sensors! How am I going to get in without them going off? I can't just blank out out here. There're too many people. I… He looked around furtively, hoping to find a place where he wouldn't be seen so that he could perform his trick 'unseen'.
Unfortunately for him, there didn't appear to be an immediate place where he could go. Wherever he looked, there were people and their eyes were everywhere. He was sunk.
Wait! The bathroom. I can go back there and disappear. Then I can come back here and return the book. It's no big deal.
Laughing a little in relief he did just that.
Almost there… Almost there.
A feeling of relief gradually spread through him as he approached the bookstore again, stolen merchandise in hand. He took care to make sure that no one accidently bumped into him along the way. If they did, things would get…well, Virgil didn't like to think about that. After all, what does someone do if they hit something that isn't there?
And after all, he wasn't there.
Bumping into someone worried him a bit. It was a complication that he could do without, especially since he didn't know what would happen. This…his ability…it was all still rather new to him. Such things didn't normally happen. At least, they didn't until now that is. A few months ago he was just like all the people walking around in the mall. Now he had a skill that they didn't have.
He could turn invisible.
Clearly the instruction book on the universe had been thrown out the window. Anything could happen now, and anything also included making his already 'unlucky' life even more hectic than it already was.
He glanced down at the ground to make sure that there was nothing getting too close to him, as he couldn't see his own foot. Then he looked back up to gauge the crowd, searching for gaps. He wove through them with a combination of speed and care—a skill he had picked up in the rather crowded halls of his school—and then he passed in between the sensors.
I already know that they can't detect me, he thought, passing between them. I'll be okay.
His elbow banged against one of them and he cursed out loud.
Shit! My arm! He exclaimed mentally upon seeing himself—book included—begin to appear, transparent at first, but surely becoming more solid. It was just then that the alarm in the alarm in the machines began to blare. Stumbling backwards, Virgil shut the noise out, clamping his hands over his ears for good measure and concentrated as hard as he could. His still transparent body flickered and snapped out of existence. He waited a moment, looking around as the store employees looked over at the entrance with confusion.
"Did that thing just go off over nothing?" asked a tall, dark-haired young man, approaching the scanners with a raised eyebrow.
"Must be a computer glitch or something," said a red-haired girl behind the pay counter, shrugging nonchalantly. The girl seemed to sweep her green-colored eyes in his direction and Virgil felt a tingle go down his spine. However, she quickly lighted on a customer approaching, and she smiled at him.
He let out a sigh of relief.
Let's get this over with, he breathed. Wasting no time, but taking care to not have a repeat of the incident, he hurried over to the book shelf and half-placed, half-jammed the magazine back where he found it. He turned to go, but hesitated.
Better try and make it look nice, he thought with a sense of guilt. His hand reached out, only for the movement of a customer to catch his attention.
Better idea… Let's get out of here while the getting's good.
Virgil was in the food court again, nervously chewing on a slice of sausage and green pepper pizza—bought and paid for with his own money this time. He took another bite with little enthusiasm. He felt a little better now that the incriminating evidence was no longer in his possession, but he still felt a bit sick to his stomach. Paradoxically, he was pretty hungry too—as he always was after using his power—but he didn't feel much like eating. He forced himself though, if only so that he had something to do. The way he felt, he would go crazy if he didn't at least do something.
Should have bought a book so that I had something to read, he thought as he impatiently tapped his foot on the floor. Of course, he knew why he didn't. It had been bad enough that his power had given out on him because he bumped into the scanner, something that wouldn't have happened if he had seen where his own limbs were. No one seemed to have noticed him when he was in the in-between area, but there was always a possibility…
No. It was best to not think like that.
Picking up the soda cup next to his pizza plate, he sipped at it.
It was a stupid idea, he berated himself. I shouldn't have even tried. If Dad knew what I just tried to do…what I did…he'd kill me. I…
Virgil jumped as his cell phone rang. He fumbled it out of his pocket as his face went through several different shades of red.
Shit! I completely forgot that I had it on!
"H-H-Hello?" he stammered upon hitting the reply button.
"Are you ready to come home, sport?" came the voice of his father, William Southwick, on the other end.
"Ah! Well…I…I don't know." Virgil cursed himself for the way he sounded. "I…ah…I didn't find anything interesting." He glanced at his wallet. He still had another fifteen dollars in there. Would it be enough?
Not for that book…
"Well, your mother's a hard one to shop for on your budget," joked the man. "If you want, I can give you an IOU…"
"No thanks." Virgil sighed dejectedly and leaned back in his seat, drumming one finger on the table. "I think I'll just come home."
"You sure? I can wait a little longer if you want. It's no big deal."
"I…" Virgil took a deep breath and thought about it for a second. "Yeah. All right. I think there's something. I'll be out in a few minutes."
It had seemed like such a good idea at the time, thought Virgil as he exited the mall, a small bag from a Natural Science store containing a piece of quartz crystal, all boxed up. He wasn't happy with it. It seemed to be a cheap thing to get, but there wasn't anything else that he could get with the money he had left. He had hoped to get a book for his mother, the one big one that she had had her eye on for a while, the one he had stolen and then returned, but he couldn't go back to the bookstore. Not after what had happened.
The only thing that I can say I got out of it is that I can't be detected as long as I'm invisible. Not just to the naked eye. Ugh. He pressed one hand against his face and dragged it down. Who pays thirty-five dollars for a book, anyway?
His father's red-colored truck pulled up as he made his way down the sidewalk and the passenger side door popped open. Virgil looked up at a grinning, well-built, bearded man sporting a black cap turned backwards on his head. Virgil climbed into the seat and shut the door, dropping the bag next to him.
"So what'd you get?" The elder Southwick asked as he began to peel them away from the sidewalk.
"Nothing special," Virgil replied with an annoyed tone. "Just something from the Natural Science shop." He scowled. "I didn't have enough money to get what Mom really wants."
"Welcome to the real world, son," nodded his father with a sympathizing tone. "When you graduate, you'll find that unless you have a lot of money, you'll end up being disappointed a lot."
"Thanks for the confidence. I'm looking forward to growing up now."
"You've still got a few years," the man pointed out. "This is the best time to make good use of them. What have I been telling you since you were a little kid?"
"Get good grades and work hard." Virgil leaned against the truck's door.
"I only say it because I don't want you to have the kind of life I did." The man turned the wheel and pulled out into traffic, gunning the engine so that they fell in at a brisk pace. "I got lucky with my current job. You might not. Don't depend on luck."
Virgil sighed, feeling a bit annoyed over having the same conversation that they've gone through for what felt like forever. "I know, Dad."
But his father wasn't finished, and as he continued talking, Virgil wished that he could just disappear.
It was almost funny how much that idea meant now. Before, it was just a wish, but now…
Virgil threw himself down on his bed and buried his face into his pillow. After a couple minutes he craned his head so that he was no longer suffocating and glanced over at the calendar on his wall. It was Sunday in the month of March. Late March to be more specific and the weather was warm. But it was neither the month or the weather that he had on his mind, it was the day.
He was going to school tomorrow.
He groaned in frustration and shifted onto his side, facing away from the calendar.
I've still got some math homework to finish up, he thought, but the idea of burying the rest of his day into crunching numbers that he felt wouldn't help him in life as far as he saw didn't appeal to him. He didn't even want to think of anything school related right now. He just needed—wanted—to do something other than just…well, think about school.
Unfortunately, his mind kept creeping over to it.
Groaning again, he threw the covers over him and clenched his eyes shut.
Sometimes I wish my brain would just shut up and leave me alone…
"Cloaking—the ability to render oneself invisible to the naked eye—is an idea that used to belong to the realm of science fiction," spoke the tall, spindly man wearing a white lab coat to the crowd of students in front of him. "But not anymore."
Reaching out towards the computer next to him, the man—Mr. Jarvis according to his nametag—pushed a button. Electricity sparked around a metallic sphere sitting on a pedestal and covered with wires. A loud hum filled the air and after a couple seconds the sphere disappeared from view, causing more than a few students to exclaim in surprise.
Within the crowd, Virgil Southwick felt a wide, surprised smile spread across his face.
"As you can see…or, more like you can't…" Reynold's chuckled at his own joke, eliciting some from the class as well. "Anyway, as you can see, the cloaking field has rendered this sphere completely invisible. However, I wouldn't count on it being used in today's society just yet." The man turned the computer screen so that it was now facing the students. A circle was pictured on it in alternating colors of yellow and blue. Before too long the yellow began to turn into a more orange color. A student inclined her head and frowned in curiosity.
"Why is it doing that?" she asked.
"Well young miss, the cloaking field requires a lot of energy to operate, and because of that it's creating a lot of heat as it surrounds the sphere. The cloak, sadly, isn't perfect. It can hide an object or person from visual inspection and can even bend deflect some detection systems, but it can't hide from heat sensors. There are still a lot of bugs that we need to work out before this kind of technology becomes applicable for society. Until then…" Jarvis hit the button on his keyboard and the sphere rematerialized before them. "So," he smiled at the students. "Who wants to be turned invisible?"
"You can do that?" asked Virgil. There was a snicker behind him.
"Do you think he would ask if he didn't, Virgin?"
"Knock it off, Alex," snapped the teacher, Mrs. Kelly as she took a step forward. "Is it safe?" she asked Jarvis pointedly.
"Perfectly," Jarvis replied. "We've had some of our own technicians test it on themselves…mainly to see if they could do it and not get caught." There was some laughter at that. He winked at the class. "But don't tell anyone. It's our secret."
"Hey Virgil," said a student with a bowl-shaped haircut standing at Virgil's right—his name was Phil Reynolds. "Why don't you give it a try?"
"Come on," Alex said, giving him a slight push towards the technician. "Just go up there. If we wait for you to make a decision we'll be growing little white beards. I don't want to wait that long."
"Yeah," said a girl with long, dark hair that fell down her back in one clean sheet. "Come on, Virgil. Let's see you do something exciting for a change."
"Something other than hanging back," whispered a girl next to her and she flashed them an angry look. Virgil smiled nonetheless, feeling a light blush scrawl across his face. He turned towards Mr. Jarvis and walked towards him.
"Taking the adventurer's steps, eh?" the man grinned. "All right. If you would just step right here…" The man indicated a ring next to him and Virgil stepped onto it. The technician began to attach some wires to his body, first around his head and then his arms before finishing up with his chest. Jarvis stepped back towards his computer.
"All right," he said. "You may feel a tingling sensation, but there's no need to worry. That's part of the cloaking field. Just relax and remember that you'll be fine."
Virgil nodded and turned to face his class. They were all watching him expectantly. Jarvis pressed a button and sure enough Virgil felt a sharp tingle flash across his body and he took a shuddering breath to calm himself.
Holy… He hitched a breath and it took surprising effort to let it out. I feel like I just jumped into a cold lake or something…
The tingling in his skin suddenly increased in intensity and he looked down at himself. As he watched, his body faded, became transparent and disappeared completely.
I'm invisible… he thought before shouting it out in a loud voice. "I'm invisible!"
Virgil jumped beneath his blankets as he heard a voice calling for him. He shifted, and cursed as he found that he had become entangled. He moved about, trying to get out of the trap of wonderful warmth so that he could properly respond to whoever was calling him…only to end up falling right out of bed and slamming into the floor.
"Ow…" he moaned as his pillow pelted him in the face.
The door to his room opened and his father entered, looking down at him with an amused and slightly bewildered expression.
"You all right, kid?" he asked, noting the leg dangling rather comically in the air.
"I'm alive…" Virgil replied, his voice slightly muffled by the pillow over his face.
"All right. Anyway, I'm just letting you know that supper's ready. If you're not down in ten we're giving your food to the cat."
Virgil gave him a thumbs up in acknowledgement. "Gotcha."
The door clicked closed and Virgil pushed his pillow onto the floor. His hair was a mess and he looked a tad bit disheveled. Flushed from the heat his blanket had trapped and disheveled. He swung his legs down and after untangling himself he sat up, smacking his lips as he cleared his head of sleep.
"Jeez…so much for my afternoon."