In The Core: Prologue I

Matt only starts to realize the mess he's made as his phone starts to buzz against his desk. He glances down at the acrylics splattered across both hands and then back up to the phone. Perhaps the patterns across his palms weren't the best idea after all.

He turns his hand over, feeling some sense of pride in the painted outlines before he decides it's time to wipe them away. While it's certainly the most difficult part of the process, it's also the part that makes it worth it. The only way that Matt can feel good about making anything, even today's tiny floral prints, is if he can make sure the network never gets their hands on it.

Any project that they're able to touch is zapped of creativity before it even begins.

Matt smears the design with a nearby paper towel, only really managing to spread it all around. He sighs as his phone buzzes again and stands to head to the bathroom for some soap. He's unsurprised when he finds a messy palm-print on the edge of his desk. Matt makes a mental note to grab some more paper towels on the way back.

He hears his phone buzz a third time as he walks back to his bedroom, hands still wet from the sink. Matt wipes them on the front of his pants before he remembers the paper towels he was supposed to grab. It buzzes one more time as he heads back across the hall, but Matt doesn't pay it much attention.

He's not so sure that he wants to read the messages. Matt didn't realize how difficult it would be around this time of year, when commercials are already beginning to advertise the newest season. He's been quieter in the group chat, not that he'd ever been that active.

It's hard for Matt right now to remember that he's one of them. No matter that that shouldn't be an insult.

ʜᴀᴠᴇ ʏᴏᴜ ʜᴇᴀʀᴅ ғʀᴏᴍ ᴍᴀᴛᴛʏ ᴛᴏᴅᴀʏ?

Guiliana waits for Rajan to read the message before she closes the thread again. She swipes through recent conversations but there aren't too many to read. Still, leaving Z-Chat is never something that Guiliana wishes to do.

Especially today, when there are no rehearsals to think about or meetings to attend. The breaks that Guiliana takes back in Lethbridge are some of the loneliest weeks of the year. That pattern doesn't seem like one that's keen to break this time around. Guiliana doesn't have anything better to do than thumb through conversations and try not to think too hard about what's happening a few days from now.

ɴᴏ, ᴡʜʏ? Rajan types back. His laptop screen stares back at him with a paused lecture video waiting, but he has no interest in continuing. The break to talk to someone is more than welcome even if it's not exactly productive.

Rajan looks around the messy room, sighing when he remembers that it's almost time to start packing again. He can't believe that it's already time to head back into Toronto for media week. The last one feels like it only happened a month ago, maybe less. Rajan turns back to his computer. Suddenly the lecture doesn't seem like the worst thing in the world anymore.

ᴊᴜsᴛ ᴡᴏɴᴅᴇʀɪɴɢ

Guiliana sighs as she drops her phone back down beside her head. She sent Matty a message earlier today, but it doesn't even look like he's read it yet. She tells herself to give him more time before worrying but that's easier said than done.

She remembers her first media week last year. Guiliana just wants to make sure that Matty's okay, even though there's little she can do if he isn't. It's easier to worry about him than to think about her own feelings around returning to Toronto. It makes her feel less guilty about being scared of boarding that flight on Thursday.

She's supposed to take care of him; that's what everyone did for her last year. Guiliana simply doesn't feel prepared to help anyone. She might not be the newest winner anymore, but the wounds still feel just as fresh. She isn't ready to settle into the role of taking care of anyone but she still has to try.

Guiliana looks down at her pastel-printed pajama bottoms and striped socks. On her days off, she rarely changes into anything else but she has the sudden urge to. She isn't the baby of the group anymore. In another couple months, that's going to become even more true.

Aʀᴇ ʏᴏᴜ ʀᴇᴀᴅʏ ғᴏʀ ᴛʜᴜʀs?Rajan asks, not sure what else to type in response. He doesn't exactly want to go back to studying no matter how much he should. Immediately, though, the question feels tasteless and he wishes he could take it back.

None of them are ready to go back. Year after year it doesn't get any easier.

Rajan's just about to put his phone to the side when another notification catches his attention. At first he thinks it must be G, but she still hasn't read his last message. No, this one's in their group chat and it's from Zoe.

ɪғ sᴏᴍᴇᴏɴᴇ ᴅᴏᴇsɴ'ᴛ ʀᴇsᴘᴏɴᴅ ʀɪɢʜᴛ ғᴜᴄᴋɪɴɢ ɴᴏᴡ ɪ'ᴍ ɢᴏɪɴɢ ᴛᴏ ʙʀᴇᴀᴋ sᴏᴍᴇᴛʜɪɴɢ

Alexis takes a deep breath as the timer goes off, indicating a break from the rowing machine that she's almost reluctant to take. Her heart thumps loudly in her chest, squeezing the next breaths from her lungs as she steps idly around the empty gym. Alexis' tired joints make the floor look pretty enticing, but there are still two more rounds to go.

She throws her towel over the seat and reaches for her phone. The smile is automatic on her lips even before she opens her messages. The exhaustion from moments ago is long forgotten by the time she's entered her passcode.

Dᴏᴇs 4 sᴛɪʟʟ ᴡᴏʀᴋ? Alexis reads.

She glances at the time, immediately grateful that she skipped going home for lunch today. The rowing practice had run late that morning, but she should still have more than enough time to finish and shower before four o'clock.

Alexis doesn't want to cancel again. Practice and workouts might come first, but she doesn't want to mess this up either. She has to be able to do it all.

All of this is going to make her happy if she lets it. The trophies and award ceremonies will validate all the work that she's putting in. A dinner date at The View will stop the feeling that she's missing out on having a life outside of rowing. It'll take more balance to do both, but each feels too important to wave to the side.

And she likes Ari.

A lot.

ᴛʜᴀᴛ ᴡᴏʀᴋs! Alexis types, going back and forth between deleting and re-adding the exclamation mark before deciding to leave it. ғᴇᴇʟ ғʀᴇᴇ ᴛᴏ ᴄᴏᴍᴇ ʙʏ sᴏᴏɴᴇʀ ɪғ ʏᴏᴜ'ʀᴇ ғʀᴇᴇ

The message is read and Ari's typing before she can even put her phone down. There are other messages Alexis should probably check, but she can't make herself exit the conversation. It's hard to tell if it's the pre-workout or the giddiness that's making her heart beat so quickly.

ʏᴏᴜ ʀᴇᴀᴅ ᴍʏ ᴍɪɴᴅ ʜᴀʜᴀ

Her phone beeps again letting Alexis know that her break is over. She punches out a fast reply and tosses her phone down beside her water bottle. Alexis pumps up the volume on her playlist and straps her feet back into the machine, trying to ignore the immediate burning that returns to the side of her chest.

She presses a hand against the area for a second, willing the pain to decrease. Eventually it does, but the moment she moves to pick up the handle it starts again.

Alexis lets out a slow breath, hoping that the cameras won't pick on the pain swelling her expression. The last thing she needs is for the network to find out.

Calvin doesn't say a word as Elise continues her attempts to bribe Odo into the backseat. He's impatient to get going, but he understands as well as anyone that they need to be careful about their conversations. The scrambler that Zoe installed in his car is a godsend, but it also makes Calvin anxious anytime he goes to use it. It feels too good to be true even after all these years.

"Can you call him or something?" Elise says through tired breaths and Calvin laughs. Odo stares up into the driver's side and wags his tail, but seems blissfully unaware of what his owner is asking of him.

When Calvin had dropped Odo off with her back in 2016, he hadn't exactly expected Elise to ask to keep him. Calvin had just needed a few nights to get a pen set up that would hold the four-legged bulldozer. Even when Odo weighed half of what he did now, the dog managed to get into everything. Sometimes he wonders how Elise manages to get anything done.

Calvin certainly misses the dog, but he gets his fix often enough. It's nice to see Odo get the attention he clearly craves and funny to see his friend struggle to lift the hundred-pound dog into his backseat.

"Psst, Odo!" Calvin whispers. "Come on, Odo."

The car all but shakes as the dog leaps inside, turning around in the seat to give Elise a wet kiss on the side of her face. She wrinkles her nose before shutting the door and collapsing into the passenger seat with a heavy sigh.

"I think he likes you better than me," Elise says flatly as her seatbelt clicks.

Calvin shrugs. "Probably."

They give it a few minutes of radio silence before Calvin finally reaches for the dial. He's not as patient as Elise is, despite the fact that he's the one that suggested they go out for a ride today. It's been years since she's acted so distant close to media week. It doesn't take a genius to know that something's up.

"Why did it take me three calls to hear back from you last night?" Calvin asks.

From his periphery he sees her shrug. Maybe some of the others would back off at this point, but Calvin's known Elise for years now. She wouldn't have come today if she didn't want to talk. "Come on, El. What did they ask you to do this time?"

"We agreed we weren't going to discuss what they asked," Elise replies. "It's safer."

Calvin rolls his eyes. "The four of us agreed on that but the two of us didn't."

It's silent again and he decides to let the words stew. It's almost an hour drive to get to Widdifield where they're supposed to take Odo on a hike. He has time even if he doesn't want to wait.

He's almost tempted to turn the radio back on when she finally speaks. "I think we should give them the number."


"All of them," she continues. "Raj, G, Matt… Zoe."

"You know we can't."

"Why not?"

Calvin lets out a slow breath, willing himself to think this out logically. The four of them agreed years ago that they wouldn't give the others access to that phone number. It's unnecessary, but more than that it's dangerous. The four of them understand when and how to use it. The more people that know, the higher chance that something can go wrong.

"We can't risk it," Calvin says softly.

Elise pauses again. "Things are happening. They need to have a way out. We don't have to explain everything, I'll just give them the number and tell them only to call if there are no other options."

"If there are no other options we'll be there and we'll call it," Calvin tries. It's not an easy choice but it's one that he's stood by for years. "They don't need to know."

Their phones both buzz against the dashboard and Elise reaches up to check. That probably means it's the group chat, but that's no reason for the pit that's starting to form in Calvin's stomach. It isn't helped when Elise doesn't immediately put her phone back down.

"What is it?" He asks.

She shakes her head. "Maybe you're right. They shouldn't know."

Zoe is shaking by the time the call comes in. She doesn't bother to check who it is, nor does she wait to wipe the angry tears from her eyes. Zoe can't even begin to care about the camera blinking from the top of her bedroom door.

Let them know that she's not going to lie down so they can steamroll her into submission. If they want to bring her back into treatment, so what? Nothing about those months in Toronto has managed to change her yet. She won't be broken even though, now, it feels like she doesn't have a choice.

There's no point in having calling features for Z-Chat, so Mina's call comes through What'sApp's general server. Zoe's hands are shaking so badly that she can't even hold her phone upright. She can't see Mina's face, but the moment she hears her voice Zoe's tears return tenfold.

"Put the phone down," Mina says flatly. "The shaking is giving me a migraine."

"Fuck you," Zoe breathes, but leans her phone down against her desk so it's facing her. She catches a glance at her red-streaked face on the screen. Zoe's almost glad that it's Mina that called. She can't imagine any of the others seeing her like this. Thankfully, Mina's already had the pleasure.

"Is that what was so important?"

"Cast list," Zoe chokes out each word between a panicked sob. She doesn't know how she's supposed to explain what just happened. She just needs to. "Fucking bastards."

"I don't follow."

Mina doesn't allow any of the concern to reach her voice. Zoe's not the type to want it and Mina's not exactly the consoling type anyways. Still, she doesn't like the sound of whatever's going on. It's been years since their last tearful phone call and that time they'd been her tears, not Zoe's.

"They're gonna take him," Zoe shouts. Mina bites her lip as a small thud comes from behind her. She doesn't have to look to know what just fell off her bed. The sharp meow that follows is just confirmation.


Zoe sighs loudly and wipes her sleeve across her eyes. She grabs the phone and for a moment all Mina can see is the top half of her face. Then, her phone buzzes with another notification. Mina raises an eyebrow realizing that it's been sent through the public app, but that's probably the smartest idea.

There's no way in hell they're not being watched right now. No matter what's going on, they still need to protect Z-Chat.

Mina opens the screenshot and skims the email, recognizing the stale wording and format as having come from the network. It doesn't take a genius to understand what's going on, which is good because Mina just woke up.

"They're fucked?" Mina says finally. She doesn't know what else she can say.

Zoe slams her phone back down on her desk as the next wave of tears comes crashing down. She doesn't have the words to explain that it's so much worse than what Mina's seeing. The network has been trying to get her progress on this stupid video game for years, but Zoe's been curving their every attempt. They don't know how long it takes to make these things so for years they've been fine with sporadic updates. It's only recently that they've started getting fed up.

The network emailed Zoe the contestant shortlist - thirty people that could find their place on the show this March.

If she doesn't have the beta version live by the beginning of next month, Aviv Vasilevsky will be one of them.

It's been years since Zoe last heard that name, but she'll never forget it. He was this smiley kid that her parents marched through their apartment one day, barely able to hold a conversation in French let alone survive in Old Montreal. Her parents had decided to take him in for a few weeks of the summer as a part of some French-teaching exchange.

Zoe, sixteen years old and already having one foot in the world of cyber crime, had wanted nothing to do with him.

She had messed with him at every convenience, even giving him a horrifying miniature of Bonhomme de Neige that should have given the kid nightmares. Zoe had made it her summer goal to wipe that stupid smile clean off his face. Her parents never had a fraction of the care for Zoe that they did for Aviv. It wasn't fair.

And after putting considerable effort into making him miserable for six weeks, Aviv thanked her for sharing her family with him as he boarded the train home.

Zoe had never hated herself more in her entire life.

"I know him," Zoe says softly, squeezing her eyes shut as she fights to steady her breath. Every instinct tells her to break anything she can get her hands on. There is already a nice-sized hole in the drywall above her desk that proves that isn't going to make her feel better this time.

"What?" Mina whispers. She's never heard Zoe talk about anyone with these names.

Zoe stands from her desk. "I fucking know him okay."

"How much is there left to do?" Mina asks.

Under any other circumstances, Zoe wouldn't even consider meeting their demands. The fact that Zoe doesn't immediately laugh in her face tells Mina that this is different.

The next time Zoe looks down at her phone, the earlier anger has melted into something that Mina's rarely seen from her friend. The self-proclaimed bastard of the winner's circle, the only one left that even bothers to fight the network head-on anymore, is scared.

"All of it."

A/N: Hello! Here we are, the official start of In The Core. For those of you who've been following my companion story, you know that submissions have been open for the past month for this story. That being said, the official deadline is February 5th, 2022 at 4PM EST for anyone still interested in submitting. All information is on my profile.

I heavily recommend reading the companion story to this verse, The Success Stories, prior to the start of this one. Otherwise these characters might not make too much sense and you'll be missing a decent amount of subplot. That being said, I won't tell you what to do.

If you have any questions feel free to shoot me a PM or find me on discord. I'm excited to get this party going very soon.

Until next time,

~ Olive