Chapter 0:

Status: Debugging

Glitches in the Digital Afterlife


The room was cold and dark, completely contrasting the cluttered work desk, littered with loose wires and a plethora of various-sized mugs.

The tabletop itself was hot to the touch, heated by the desk lamp and the computer working overdrive to test the lengthy code on the screen.

An engineer curled into her worn-out chair as she waited for the system to test every line of the program she independently coded from scratch. It had taken months of nitpicking all the tiny details she could remember.

This had to be perfect.

An error in her coding would ruin months of tedious labour, and she didn't want that. Not when it was supposed to be a gift, a labour of love.

She sighed, sipping from her travel mug. To her disappointment, the tea had gone cold.

 "Twelve-hour heat insulation? What a scam..."

A flash of red and blue darted past her peripheral, which caught the young woman's attention. Her eyes flickered to gauge the time left in the testing process.

The hologram display on the wall above her computer read 09:59.

Her mind danced over the disorganized mess of her mental checklist as she thought over what she had supposedly put into her schedule this week.

Dishes? Done.
Meal prep for her classes this week is also done.
Historical analysis paper? Submitted.
Laundry? Er—

She glanced at the neatly folded pile of clothes on the corner of her dishevelled bed.

Kind of done.

Her sister had fished the day-old laundry from the dryer at some point in the last few days—shit.

She scrambled from her seat in search of a new pair of pants and an unstained long sleeve.

Ding.

A string of curses followed her groan as she nearly missed her seat to scan over the results. "Of course, you gotta finish when I'm rushing to leave!"

The rest of her words faltered at the plethora of issues in the programming. Syntax errors and several conditioning renderings failed to provide the necessary actions. It was far from perfect, but she was running out of time.

Time, time, time.

With a heavy huff, the young woman pulled her keyboard towards her. Determined eyes scanned for all the bugs and errors in the colourful code.

She could have sworn she closed the brackets earlier, but here she was, adding the ends to opened commands.

Her eyes darted to the time once more, her older sister’s appointment was supposed to be soon, and she was tasked with driving her there.

The harsh clicking from her keyboard swallowed the sound of staggering footsteps approaching her room. A light rap against the metal door was accompanied by a gentle voice that interrupted her thoughts. 

"Aiko? Did you forget about my doctor’s appointment?"

"N-no! No, I didn't forget! One second, I'll be right out! Just finishing up something important!"

"Alright, I'm gonna put my laundry away then; just call me when you're ready to go."

Aiko, too occupied by the little error markers on her code, hadn’t realized that her sister couldn't see her response. Her fingers brushed over the keys, rewriting a couple of the parameters in hopes that the flexibility would prove successful in the next testing stage.

Her mouse paused over the green testing button.

But if it's too flexible...

"Screw it.”

Aiko initiated another examination sequence before leaving her desk. She haphazardly shoved her laptop into her backpack and made a beeline for the door.

She barely had one foot out into the living room when she lost her footing to a stray panda-print sock on the floor. Her elbow slammed into the metal doorframe, but she managed to catch herself.

The impact echoed in the small, open-concept apartment, alerting her older sister in the kitchen. "You okay, Aiko?"

"Peachy... Just peachy," she grimaces from the pain shooting up her arm. "I'm ready, sorry."

Her sister spared a skeptical glance as she waved a pre-packed lunch box. "Don't forget to bring this."

Aiko wordlessly traded her sister’s sock for the container and thanked her absent parents for not leaving her completely unattended.

She trailed after her older sister as she locked up the apartment behind them.

This wasn't the first time the two sisters had gone through this routine, but with the little coding project fresh in her mind, Aiko couldn’t stop herself from observing her older sister.

She briefly recalled a time when her sister had long hair that would fall against the middle of her back in natural, navy blue waves. The two of them have, on multiple occasions, been mistaken as twins, despite the seven-year age gap between them.

At some point after her sister's condition worsened, the eldest decided to chop off the length. Now Aiko was the one with longer hair that rested at shoulder length and her sister’s cut to chin-length.

Aiko watched the long, beige cardigan sway behind her sister’s steps, the soft fabric concealing the tired gait. Even though her medical condition often left her arms and legs feeling weak, there was always a deceiving bounce in her steps.

How was she able to keep up this façade?

Aiko quietly called out for her sister. "Nee-chan."

She didn’t respond.

“Yume.”

The frail girl hummed in acknowledgement, finger pressed upon a display screen to call for the elevator.

"I—" 

For all the little thoughts she had just been having, they seemed to vanish now that Yume's tired, blue eyes stared back at her with growing curiosity.

Aiko wanted to say thank you, to let her sister know that she appreciated her for always picking up the loose ends she could never remember, but her mouth opened and closed like a fish out of water.

Her blue eyes shifted to the opening doors. "Never mind, I forgot what I had to say. Let’s go."

The rest of their conversations remained minimal. Small banter was withheld, so the two quietly prepared themselves for the results of Yume's appointment instead. Even as they started to make their way into the city, the eldest found interest in passing views which allowed Aiko to focus on the lane.

Yume peered over at Aiko, who anxiously drummed her fingers against the steering wheel. Something had been occupying her little sister's mind as of late, and it became increasingly obvious when the young one sighed for the umpteenth time.

Tired blue eyes drifted back to the vehicles around them. The morning rush was over, yet the lanes leading onto the on-ramp seemed busier than ever.

"Sorry, we're going to be late. I should have left earlier—"

"It's alright, Aiko. Dr. Leifsdottir is quite understanding, contrary to what the nurses say."

Aiko's eyes darted from the lane to the passenger side as she eased into a stop. "Yeah, but your appointment is important!"

Yume stifled a chuckle behind the cuff of her cardigan. "What are they possibly going to tell me that I don't already hear every time I go in to visit them?"

"Your condition could get better.”

"But it could also get worse," Yume countered, shrugging nonchalantly as she propped herself against the dashboard. "Isn't it unsafe for large transport units to operate above us little vehicles?"

It took Aiko a moment to process the sudden change in topic. She copied her sister, looking up at what was indeed a large transportation unit that stretched four times the length of their car. It hovered above them like a looming thundercloud.

"Gotta love law-abiding citizens when you see one... At least the government-issued units are thoroughly inspected and maintained. I don't trust the sketchy ones from the Southern Ports."

"It would be easier if the government would just provide the necessary resources for the southern ports to continue sustaining themselves while they can. They have the money too."

The car returned to the ambient state it was in earlier, with Aiko unsure how to respond. She sided with her sister on this topic, but what else could either of them do for a district doomed to drown from the rising sea level and natural disasters?

Most of Japan was already submerged—the old port cities and prefectures closest to the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan were the first to go. 

The capital of Japan had relocated three times before Neo-Tokyo established itself in what was previously the central Chūbu region, one of the few remaining areas of higher elevation and fertile soil. Many countries in and around the Eastern waters had to do the same. 

They eventually arrived in the downtown core of Neo Tokyo, which bustled with sensory overload from bright neon signages, loud music and lane rage. Aiko carefully pulled into one of the loading docks on the sixteenth floor of the medical building. 

Yume shot her little sister a pointed look. "Be careful driving to and from class, alright?"

"I will, I will. No speeding; patience yields focus or something," Aiko playfully rolled her eyes as her sister stepped onto the platform. "You're going to write at the cafe and then meet Sylas for dinner after this?"

"Yeah, so make sure you eat. Otherwise, I'll bring you something back from the restaurant, okay?"

Aiko groaned, reaching over the centre console for the inner handle. "Okay, go! You're already late as is!"

She shut the door on her unyielding sister with a frown.

Yume wrapped the sides of her cardigan around her shivering form as Aiko waved goodbye, and she smiled in response.

Aiko pulled away from the loading dock, merging into the busy lane. The younger sister watched as Yume briefly took in the scenery from the platform, her figure lingering for just a moment before she entered the building.

≡≡≡≡≡ ° ≡≡≡≡≡ ° ≡≡≡≡≡

By the time the sisters reunited, Aiko was half-asleep at her desk.

 There were still errors that needed revising, even after a lengthy testing and debugging process. Her stomach grumbled in protest when she decided to pick at the stale, barbecue-flavour chips from her desk drawer instead.

Yume had assumed the lack of response to her messages meant that her sister neglected to cook dinner again, so she brought back a nice box of Pad Thai and some coconut pudding.

“I’m hopping in the shower if you need me,” Yume announced, leaving the takeout in front of Aiko. “They had to do more bloodwork than usual, so I’ll be sleeping early tonight.”

Aiko perked up, having forgotten to ask about the appointment when she was still sitting idly in one of her lectures earlier. “Was everything okay?”

“Yeah, uh, Dr. Leifdottir said there's visible damage to some of the nerves in my legs. She suggested I move around a bit more to encourage blood flow. Also, my RBC count was a little lower compared to the last appointment.”

“So, not good then…”

Yume masked her disappointment with a grin, placing a cold hand on her head in the process—but Aiko didn’t miss the way the smile failed to reach the corner of her eyes.

“It could have been worse. Just keep counting the stars with me.”

Aiko nodded at their little inside joke, placing her hand over Yume’s. The contrast between their body temperature used to make her jump, but now there was an odd sense of comfort for both of them.

“Thank you for the food.”

“Enjoy it well. Sylas made sure they added extra peanuts in there for you.”

As the night progressed, Yume bid her sister good night and disappeared into her room after the shower, leaving her bedroom door open as she always did. Aiko continued to work through the night, but this time, only one final test was needed to ensure that there would be no more errors and bugs.

She was so close to the finishing product, so close.

The young woman stifled a yawn as the clock struck midnight. She tested different sequences individually as a way to thoroughly inspect the probabilities and actions. It would be better if she could put herself into the program to experience everything she had done for herself, but that would distort the integrity of her gift. 

The next step was the beta test, but only if her program could successfully pass all the preliminary ones, she was putting it through.

Her eyes were dry and itchy, her brain begging for sleep. Once the beta test proved successful, she finally caved for one final, automated test. The slow waiting process lulled Aiko to sleep at her desk. Her form slumped over the messy table.

At 02:27, Aiko jolted awake from her nap at the sound of the computer’s alert.

Status: Success