Chapter 6:

Trust Fall (1)

Glitches in the Digital Afterlife


Somewhere in the Compound, Yume was lost. One late turn and the weary woman found herself disoriented by the mess of grey corridors. There was a subtle hum from the bright lights that illuminated the corridor, but the hum turned into a growing pressure in her ear.

Is it the altitude? 

The humming became a dull ringing, blocking out the rest of the ambience.

Yume pushed her finger against her tragus, doing her best to stifle the sudden audial intrusion but voices slowly replaced the ringing. She whipped around hoping to find people she could ask for help, but the hallway remained empty, and the disembodied voices continued. 

“I’ve been calling Yume for the last day and a half, what the hell is—”

Yume registered Sylas's voice, but a pounding interrupted her thoughts, strong and heavy like a bass drum inside her skull. Her breathing became erratic.

“It’s not what it looks like!”

“Aiko, tell me that’s not what I think it is.”

Yume massaged at her temple in an attempt to ease the building pressure which interrupted fragments of Sylas and Aiko's conversation. Something about the D.A.L.

“I—”

“AIKO!

The pain grew tenfold along with the bickering, but it interfered with most of what they were saying. Sylas continued to raise his voice at her sister, and Yume found herself unable to stand. She keeled over as her body slid to the floor. Her hands clutched the sides of her head in an attempt to suppress all the noise. Silently begging the pain to subside, she curled herself into a ball. 

Yume didn't understand why the two were fighting—they never fight—but her inner mediator knew well that she needed to intervene. Aiko’s stubborn personality often left her ungiving to other people’s perspectives in an argument. The longer their fight goes on, the worse it'll get.

Yume slowly picked herself up, finding support against the wall as she limped in search of the nearest room.

They gotta be close by somewhere.

Approaching the first door, the noises suddenly splintered into different frequencies. “We need to pull her out from there.”

“We can’t!”

“The longer she stays in… The worse it’ll get.”

A strong wave of nausea washed over her. This urged Yume to double over as she felt the curling in her gut.

“Please stop fighting,” she pleaded repeatedly.

“Yume. Yume!”

It took the woman a moment to recognize her name. Glossy eyes barely made out the man calling for her. His hands gently cupped the side of her face as he tried to talk her into a steady rhythm.

A mop of blond hair ducked under her navy tresses to look at Yume's face. Baby hairs clung to her forehead from the sheen of cold sweat. Warm fingers brushed her hair out of the way as he shifted to remain within her line of sight.

“Just take deep breaths with me, Yume. That’s it.”

Yume followed his instructions, desperately trying to regain her breath and her sense of awareness as the voices ceased into a ringing. Kagehisa peered up at Yume with distress in his eyes, watching as she unravelled from the pain.

“What’s wrong, Yume?”

“A-Aiko,” she winced at the pain, moving out of Kagehisa’s hold. “Sylas. Fighting.”

“Who? You mean Aslin?”

“No, Aiko. Aiko and Sylas.”

“Who’s Aiko?”

The ringing stopped, and nausea slowly receded, but there was still a light thrumming in her head. Yume moved to stand with wobbly legs, so Kagehisa stepped forward to still her wavering form. The woman heaved a deep breath, relishing in the lighter feeling.

“Yume, who’s Aiko?”

She blinked once, then twice, recovering her perfect sight to confront the confusion on her best friend's face. He was waiting on a response. 

She brought a finger up to the spot on herself where Kagehisa’s family of koi fish was inked. “Aiko… My little sister?”

Instinctively, Kagehisa raised a hand to cup the side of his neck, suddenly aware of the old tattoo on him.

“Strength in family; perseverance with unwavering support.”

“Yes, but this tattoo—”

“You. Me. Aiko,” her fingers moved to mirror the placements of the three koi fish. “I need to see Aiko and Sylas.” 

Yume tried to move from her spot, but her best friend shifted just enough to prevent her from leaving the corridor. He was only a couple of centimetres taller than her, but the athletic build was the most intimidating part now that he stood with purpose.

“There’s no one here named Aiko, Yume. Each koi fish represents Rosiel and us.”

That's not right. 

The woman cocked her head, eyes squinting at the man until her features darkened with frustration. “Where’s Aiko then? Why haven’t I seen her all night?”

His first response was, "I don't know." He didn’t know of anyone named Aiko. There was a strong urge to shake his best friend until her senses returned, but her eyes brimming with tears stopped him.

She dropped her gaze, sighing as she tugged on the roots of her hair. “You don’t believe me do you?”

Kagehisa caught himself before he blurted out any false affirmations. The two stood at odds, with Yume squeezing her eyes in an unsuccessful attempt to prevent more tears from spilling while Kagehisa racked his brain for a suitable response. The last thing he wanted was to jeopardize his best friend's emotional state. 

“Tonight must have been very overwhelming. Let’s try and settle in for some rest. I’ll come find you later and can talk things out then, alright?”

Yume sighed at his avoidant response. She glanced up at her best friend as she nodded to his suggestion. She felt dejected by the lack of verbal assurance from the only person she visually recognized, but the comforting sight of his golden eyes and promising smile was enough to tide her over.

A silent trust was exchanged between the two of them, and Kagehisa took the lead back to her friends. “Let’s get you back to Sylas and Aslin before they start to worry.”

The pair quietly maneuvered the halls. This time, Yume focused on mapping their route, finding small landmarks to ensure she wouldn't lose her way again. Kagehisa helped by pointing out important rooms, reminding Yume of the meeting room, the mess hall and the control hub.

“This is the team lounge,” Kagehisa chirped with a small smile as the door slid open, revealing a vast monochrome space.

Yume looked around in awe, noting the sunken living space with black cushions. The projector itself accompanied a projector screen attachment in the ceiling mounted above the sectionals.

A small bar was set up on the left, and the adjacent corner housed a workspace of sorts with a large rectangular table and matching chairs.

At the far end of the lounge awaited two sets of stairs, conjoined by the landing on the second floor that led into a dim hallway. From what Yume could see, there was a cozy reading nook under both stairs. 

Smart use of space...

For an entire floating government base with a hangar of sleek jets, this common area seemed comfy and inviting—a compelling contrast to the dark interior and the purpose of said base.

A figure descended from the first-floor hallway. They passed the arch beneath the landing before stopping short of the pair to address them with a formal bow.

“Amari, how did the arrangements go?”

Yume blinked, recognition settling in as she finally got a better look at Amari without the hood of their stealth gear.

They sported a black pixie cut and a small hoop nose ring. A slit was marked through their right brow, but from the looks of the jaggedness, it may have been a scar. They were roughly the same height as Yume, standing at 173 centimetres with a well-defined physique. Yume blushed at the sight of their chiselled shoulders before finding something else in the lounge to admire.

“Both guests have been given a small tour, and I freed up the first room on the left for Nagayoshi’s friend.”

At Amari’s kind words, Yume presented a deep bow. “I sincerely apologize for intruding on your team like this, but thank you for accommodating my friends and me.”

“There’s no need for the formalities, Yume. We’re family.”

She straightened up at Kagehisa's words and noticed how Amari pursed their lips, eyes darting between Kagehisa and herself. They sucked in a small breath like they wanted to speak but decided against it.

“Thank you for helping with the last-minute arrangements, Amari. You are dismissed.”

Amari nodded and took their leave, bidding a quiet goodnight to their superiors. Once she retreated into the hall, Kagehisa nudged his head towards the stairs. Yume took the cue to trail after him. Her soft steps considerately padded up the stairs. 

“There are four dorms in the lower hall and six in the upper,” Kagehisa pointed to both hallways. “Amari and a few others reside down there. You’ll find Fujioka, Rosiel and a few others up here with us.”

Every single door in the hallway looked the same to Yume, not a single indication as to which room belonged to whom.

“Which one is your room?”

Kagehisa pointed to the second door on their left, then to the one across from it, indicating her room. “Just shout if you need me. Aslin’s just next to mine.”

Yume looked to the door next to the stairs, making a note to check in on her friend before she called it a night.

Kagehisa closed his eyes, sighing as he ran a hand through his blond hair to shake out his exasperation. “Look, I know this is a lot to take in, but if you can, take a glance through some personnel files to familiarize yourself with the people in the Compound. It might help with all this... confusion. ”

“But—”

The opening of Yume's door interrupted their conversation, revealing Sylas in a set of borrowed clothes that fit loosely around his frame and a grey towel around his neck.

“Hey,” he murmured awkwardly, eyes shifting between Yume and Kagehisa. “You okay?”

Yume offered a small nod, lips pressed in a thin line because okay is a little far from how she was feeling.

Sylas’ grey eyes scrutinized Kagehisa’s body language, who was busy observing Yume’s lacklustre response to her partner. He never got the opportunity to ask her that himself, but she hid it so well, even he found himself somewhat convinced that nothing had happened in the hall just moments ago.

Sylas’ odd behaviour didn't go unnoticed by Kagehisa. The blond grimaced at the uncomfortable feeling of holes being bored into the side of his head, urging him to retreat into his room.

“Well then, if there’s anything you guys need, I’m just across the hall.”

The trio exchanged quiet thank yous and goodnights before disappearing into their shared room. Once the door was shut, Yume remembered to check on Aslin. 

Heavy doors slid open once more, but Sylas stopped her. “She said she wants to sleep it off and talk later.”

Oh.

Yume nodded, but as the door closed, she could feel the slew of questions waiting to pour out unfiltered from her partner. The anxious woman attempted to buy herself some time by locking the door, but to her disappointment, the mechanism was as simple as a touch on a small screen.

She sucked in a deep breath, willing herself to turn and face her partner with the most convincing smile she could muster, but her sugar-coated act was cut short. Sylas surprisingly drew her in for a hug. His soft breath fanned across the base of her neck.

Yume waited for all he had to say, but words remained unspoken, and his arms tightened around her smaller frame. The pace of his breath was faster than normal, a sign that he was holding back on his feelings—as if he was trying to suppress the urge to tear up. 

She tried to rub soothing circles into his back.

The dark fabric of Sylas’ shirt was soft against her cheek, a slight warmth radiating from his skin beneath, but it lacked any sort of scent. The shirt, from what she can only assume belonged to someone else in the Compound, was free of detergent or obvious wear. Despite having been in the shower recently, not a single scent lingered on Sylas either. Not of soap, not of the man himself.

Sylas finally broke the silence, pulling away just enough to glance down at Yume. “I’m sorry I didn’t do more to help.”

Yume blinked expectantly at her partner, tugging his towel over his head to help him dry his silver hair some more.

“You did help, Sy. You did your best to help Aslin, and that was more than enough,” she huffed, ruffling her partner's locks with vigour until he broke into a chuckle, hands coming up to halt her movements.

Her eyes danced between his tired grey eyes and silver hair as she smoothed the towel down around his neck. Her fingertips grazed the dark undercut that complimented the lighter strands, and she grinned. 

“You do suit silver, by the way. I never lied about that.”

“I know.”

The two fell silent again, waiting for the other to speak their mind first. Sylas wanted Yume to go first, to give her the chance to explain or apologize, but she remained silent, unsure of where even to start.

“I’m not gonna lie to you, Yume. I’m overwhelmed, but most of all, I’m hurting, and I’m so damn confused about… all of this,” he waved his hand to gesture at the room, further emphasizing the entirety of the Compound itself. “Amari showed us around and explained a little about this place and your role in it, so in some sense, I kind of get it.”

Yume squinted, confused, “Get what?”

“Why you never told me about your line of work.”

Protests filled her mind, waiting to be voiced, but she bit down on the insides of her cheeks, worrying over the possibility that he might have thought she had lost her sanity.

“But, it still hurts, Yume. To know that we married and made all these promises, yet you still hid all this from me.”

Her eyes darted to the black band nestled on Sylas’ finger, then right down to her own, free of any jewelry. It wasn't hard to decipher the sad glint in her partner’s eyes, the betrayal, yet Yume lingered on a certain thought.

She wanted to speak up and tell the man she loved that all of this was new to her too. The smart thing to do would be to ask questions because she still needed answers. However, as she stood before Sylas, a certain feeling was imposed on her mind and her heart.

Perhaps she was growing accustomed to the people around her with their subtle traits that reminded Yume of who they were supposed to be, the anchors of who they truly were beyond the unrecognizable features, despite not looking the part.

Perhaps she was just tired of fighting herself on what seemed to be the truth.

Regardless, the woman felt responsible for the very things she couldn't remember, and her partner’s feelings happened to be one of them. One deep breath and hard gulp were what she needed to root her into the present.

Yume reached for Sylas’ hand, bringing it up to her lips to press a small chaste kiss to his knuckles. “I’m sorry. I prioritized certain things but also turned my cheek on others. I shouldn’t have tried to run away.”

Shouldn’t have tried to run away from you and Aslin in the first place.

Sincerity laced her words but also masked the heavy and unsettling feeling she was still yet to overcome on her own. Questions needed to wait because if everything around her was her reality, then her spouse's feelings must take priority at this very moment. At least that much she was confident about.

Sylas closed his eyes, finding the compassion to let this go. Such a big secret being revealed begged forgiveness, and the cliché response may have just been to pull his hand away, to ask for time apart. Instead, the man remained quiet, simply nodding at Yume to show he acknowledged her apology.

Yume wished he could have given her some form of verbal assurance, but she pushed away her selfish thoughts, convincing herself that she was in no place to be asking more from someone who was already willing to give her this much.

Right?

“I love you,” the navy-haired woman muttered softly as she pulled her partner back in for another hug.

Guilt plagued her mind at the thought of vying for comfort from the very person she had put through the wringer tonight, but she was desperate for comfort—for some form of reassurance that everything was okay, that she was okay.

Sylas remained quiet, but she could feel him nod. His hand ran along her arm before giving it a light squeeze. “I know…”

Yume wanted to hear more than a simple I know, but she understood that this was as much as she would get from the man himself until he could come to terms with everything himself. 

Small bits of his argument with Aiko still lingered at the forefront of her memory, but she squeezed herself further into the hug, finding distraction in Sylas's hold to prevent the questions from flooding out. He remained her tether and her reinforcement. 

Why were they arguing about the Digital Afterlife? 

"Are you sure you're okay?"

Yume waved away her thoughts and nodded in relief from Sylas' embrace. As long as she remained quiet, perhaps everything would just come to an end. Just as Dr. B had said, perhaps this was all a dissociative fugue. 

She stretched her fingers at the resurfaced memory, testing them as she splayed them against his back, but there were no lingering feelings of numbness, no sharp pains. 

It's all in my head. It's all in my head. It's all in my head.