Chapter 8:

Trust Fall (3)

Glitches in the Digital Afterlife


BA-DUMP. BA-DUMP. BA-DUMP.

Yume felt as though her heart was going to beat out of her chest. The deafening rhythm drowned out just about everything except for the metallic taste that sat heavily on her tongue. 

Is that possible? Could this be a sign of a stroke?

She quietly walked alongside Kagehisa, occasionally peering at him from the corner of her eyes as he did not indicate where he planned to take her. His jaw remained clenched; residual displeasure from his brief encounter with Rosiel rolled from him in small waves.

Kagehisa scrunched his nose. “You should take a shower first.”

The woman flinched at the suggestion, bringing her nose down to take a sniff of her shoulders. Her nose was clogged from the nosebleed so she couldn’t smell anything, but it must be bad if her friend gave her the hint.

Back in the team lounge, Kagehisa gestured his hand at the lower hall. “First door on your left. Spare towels and stuff will be next to the sinks.”

Yume nodded, quiet steps ushered back to her room to retrieve a new set of clothes.

Sylas was still deep asleep in their bed, the blanket hung off the edge of the bed as he sprawled across the entire surface of the mattress. She smiled as she tugged the soft material back over his body, tucking him in before searching for a fresh outfit.

Yume ducked out of the room with the first set of clothes she could find, along with a pair of boots from the closet floor. There weren't many colours to choose from when the variety matched the Compound's interior. Of the organized wall of grey and black articles, Yume could only pick a grey turtleneck tank top and a thick pair of black cargo pants.

It'll do.

The layout of the shared bathroom downstairs reminded Yume of the finer pool facilities in Neo-Tokyo. On her right was the stretch of counter space with two sinks and a free area occupied by a hair dryer that sat out, unplugged and forgotten.

She nudged the device over, making space to put her clothes down.

There is a shelving unit built into the wall between the entry and the frosted cabinet mounted next to it. Various rolls of towels filled the rack, and a hamper was tucked away at the bottom.

Yume plucked a towel from the bunch and moved to open the cabinet, pleasantly surprised to see an array of toothbrushes individually held up by cute covers shaped like cartoon animals. Above each other were corresponding name labels.

Her eyes glossed over the organized cupboard and noticed a holder is a panda-shaped holder between a fox and a mouse, void of its toothbrush. There was a label with her name right above it.

Kagehisa, Yume, Rosie.

Too exhausted to ask herself any more questions, Yume picked up a brand new toothbrush and some packs of shower products. She shut the cabinet before her thoughts could get the best of her. Her toothbrush remained at the sink, but the rest of her stuff was brought into one of the private shower stalls.

Noise from the shower filled the stall and steam billowed out from the gaps above and below the door. Scorching hot water pelted her skin like hot needles, which forced Yume to relax into a slumped posture.

She chuckled to herself knowing well that if Sylas were here right now, he would complain about the water temperatures. A sudden feeling of loneliness washed over Yume, serving as a reminder that there was still a small rift between the two of them.

The tower of confusion, guilt and pure exhaustion stacked within Yume's sore body like a tower of cards. Its vulnerable structure threatened to give out at even the most minor inconvenience. Like the miscalculated pressure of placing the final card at the top, loneliness weighed too heavy to preserve the integrity of the build. 

A tightening in her chest caused tears to well up in her dull, blue eyes. Her grip on the stainless steel shower bar curled further as she tried to suppress the sound of her sobbing. With the onslaught of hot water, Yume was just barely able to distinguish the fat teardrops from the hot shower that rolled down her flushed cheeks.

How was it possible for someone to be surrounded by so many people yet feel so isolated in the darkest part of their mind? A headspace filled with contradicting memories, overwhelming thoughts, and the unshakeable feeling of guilt for something so out of their control. How do they remain calm under the peer pressure to conform and just to be… normal? To act like nothing was wrong nor out of place and that everything was just as it should have been.

Sylas and Aslin still looked very different from what she could remember. Kagehisa was supposed to be dead, and Rosie was angry with her because she was not fulfilling her duties as the captain.

Captain of what exactly? Yume still wasn't entirely sure herself.

As for her health, Yume remained skeptical of Dr. Biasura’s analysis, but she knew that only time will tell whether she truly had TDSV. The next paralysis attack has to be proof enough to the resident doctor.

Yume held her breath at the sound of the door opening outside. She instinctively wiped at her tears in case she were to be seen. Footsteps approached the stall, and a pair of indoor slippers stopped outside of her stall.

Knock, knock.

Yume backed away from the water and meekly called out. “Hello?”

“Hey, is everything alright? You’ve been in there a while.”

She eased out of her tensed posture at the sound of Kagehisa’s voice to turn off the shower. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’ll be out in a minute.”

“Alright, I left your pair of Techcons by the sink. Put them in before you come out.”

With that, the slippers disappeared from the gap, and the bathroom door opened and closed again, leaving Yume to her privacy.

She reached for the fluffy towel on the bench, drying herself off with the soft fabric. Everything started to gnaw away at her, leaving her even more desperate to confide in Kagehisa. Cathartic relief from the crying ends here. She needed to focus on piecing the puzzle together if she wanted answers.

In yet another new set of clothes, the exhausted woman shuffled over to the sink with all her belongings. She plugged in the hair dryer and ruffled her hair under the warm heat until she deemed it dry enough.

As she brushed her teeth, Yume took a moment to observe the woman staring back at her in the mirror. She hadn't gotten the chance to take a good look at herself until now, but the blank look of recognition was all she could truly perceive.

The foreigner in the mirror stood with wet strands of long, navy hair. Tired, puffy eyes glanced over her healthy body in awe at the muscle definition in her arms. She didn't look weak for once, and she liked that much more than the usual reflection that reminded her too much of the aesthetic sullen cheeks and bony frames in classic Burton films. Aiko once joked that Yume and Sylas could dress up as the bride and the groom from one of his popular animations.

Yume hummed a little tune as she rinsed her mouth in the sink. She dried off her toothbrush and continued to move about until she came to a halt.

Where did I put my toothbrush?

Blue eyes scanned the vast counter for any indication she may have just left it out, but the only things that occupied the space were her dirty clothes. The hairdryer she used was also missing.

Wait a second…

Yume opened the medicine cabinet, and to her disbelief, her toothbrush was in its little holder. The cartoon panda smiled back at her with lidded eyes and a blushing cheek while the small dryer was also wrapped neatly by its cord, sitting on a small hanger on the lower shelf.

“Did I—”

She didn't remember putting either of those things back, but the provoking sound of the door severed her thoughts. A young man stepped in with a yawn, a hand tucked under his shirt while the other rubbed the sleep out of his eyes.

“Morning, ca— Nagayoshi-san.”

“Good morning…”

“Fujioka. We uh- we met yesterday?”

“Ah, sorry. I didn’t recognize you out of uniform.”

“I-it's okay. Kagehisa-san is waiting for you. Are you guys going somewhere?”

She nodded in response, not sure how to respond otherwise because she still didn't have a clue where he was planning to take her. Fujioka nodded along as he reached over for a towel on the rack.

The two shared an awkward exchange of side steps and slight bows before he disappeared into one of the shower stalls and shut the door. Yume remained planted until she heard the shower start.

Fujioka was a lot younger now that she could see him without the dark uniform and the red contacts. From a simple once-over, she assumed he was closer to being in his early 20s if not younger, which would probably make him the youngest one on the team. 

Right, Kagehisa was waiting.

Blue eyes scrutinized the small case and the red contacts in them. Nothing alarming or out of the ordinary stood out to the woman so she quickly put them in as she would with regular contacts. Kagehisa never did explain what kind of visual aid they were, but Yume assumed them to be some type of augmented tech by their name, and she was right. Once both lenses were in, an interface appeared before her with a neon border to distinguish her physical surroundings from the overlay.

In the top left corner, Yume noticed two small circles; one with an M and the other with an F. Curious, she blinked and the icon opened to reveal a mini profile card for Fujioka.

Fujioka, T.
Location: Team Lounge — HQ

What’s M?

The card swapped for the M icon.

Matsui, K.
Location: Team Lounge — HQ

Yume craned her head to look at the bathroom door and then back towards the mirror. She figured she had no idea how these contacts work. The semi-transparent coloured profile blocked her view, so she carefully slinked out of the bathroom with her old clothes to find Kagehisa for help.

Kagehisa was already waiting outside, sitting on the edge of one of the reading nooks, hands clasped between his legs as he stared at the ground before him, deep in thought. He offered a tired sigh as he ran his hands over his face.

“Red makes me look kind of evil,” Yume pointed out, gesturing to her eyes. “Also can’t see much besides your profile card on this thing,”

Kagehisa shook his head in disbelief. “Just tell it to close.”

“Close.”

The blond snorted like a little piglet before breaking into a chuckle. “You can just think of the command, and your contacts will respond.”

Heat crept onto Yume’s cheeks, shrinking at the embarrassment as she turned pink.

Close profile?

The woman stumbled back as the contacts responded to her non-verbal command. 

Open profile.

Like a nosey child, Yume toggled the command on and off, watching with awe as his profile would open and close. She remained unaware of the constant blinking and head movements like someone from the 2010s trying on Virtual Reality headsets for the first time. Kagehisa tried to unsuccessfully stifle his amusement, but it still managed to draw Yume’s attention back to him.

“What? Wait, so what are these for and how do they work?”

Ahem~ Visual aid. It receives signals from the microchip on your optic nerve and responds to the non-verbal commands you give it. They tell you things like where each active member is, can act as GPS, identify people and vitals, night vision, telescopic view… Yeah, I think that’s about it. Anyways, just triple blink to hide the augmented interface.”

Damn, what can’t it do?

“Wait, there’s a microchip on my optic nerve?!” Kagehisa nodded, and her jaw fell slack. “Since when?!”

“Since we were recruited,” Kagehisa quickly waved his hand to dismiss any further questions she had so he could point to the mysterious bag that sat on the cushion beside him. “I’d like to get going before everyone else wakes up, so if you’re ready, let’s head out.”

With the bag slung over his shoulders, the two made their way out of the common area. Yume quietly padded behind him until they stopped in the hall to put their boots on.  

“Where are we going?”

“Somewhere we can catch up in private.”

Yume paused, her brows knitting together in confusion. “Why can’t we do that here, don’t you trust the team?”

“I… don’t know anymore.”

His cryptic response left Yume feeling even more befuddled and worried, though her lips remained firmly pressed, biting back the questions she was sure would spill out without a pause if she were to let it. Kagehisa had always been the careful and calculative type—though not very secretive—so something about the team was bothering him. 

The pair stepped inside of the elevator, taking the ride up. In place of numbers, the buttons on the panel had letters. Yume assumed SB for sub-basement, B for basement, M for main, and R for the roof.

“Are there more dorms in the basement for the other people who don’t have a room in the lounge?”

His gaze never left the display panel above the doors. Kagehisa clicked his tongue once, filling the silence as he waited for them to arrive on the next level before answering.

“Dr. Biasura and a few other newer recruits have rooms by the elevator. We’re in the middle of finishing up another headquarters further North, and until that's done the newbies are here for training. The gravitational device and the maintenance room occupy most of the basement, so for safety reasons, there are no rooms.”

Yume bobbed her head at this new information, pretending to understand the unspoken context. The pair stepped out of the elevator and into a glass dome. From where they stood, the sight was certainly one to gawk at. Yume broke out into a wide grin at the stretch of clear skies and fluffy, white clouds. 

It was endless. 

While Yume stared into the skies with affinity in her eyes, Kagehisa observed her from the side. The bag in his hand started to slip, shaking him from his little moment. He slipped on a pair of goggles before doing the same for Yume, pulling her attention from the breathtaking view.

He hands her a mask, similar to the one he wore in the warehouse.

“It’s been a while since you’ve been outside the Compound at this altitude so you’ll want to wear this. It helps regulate your breathing and oxygen levels.”

Once her gear was snug, Kagehisa opened his backpack. He passed what looks to be a rock-climbing harness over to Yume. Her eyes flickered between the material between her fingers and her best friend.

“From the looks of it, you don’t remember what these are but this,” he loosened the waistbelt and untangled the leg loops. “This is the Anti-Gravitational Maneuver Apparatus. Formally shortened to the AGMA, but we usually just call it the rig.”

He worked his leg through each loop, pulling the rig up until it sat comfortably around his hips. Gloved fingers quickly adjust the buckle before turning around to demonstrate the blue disk that rested against his lower back.

“This disk is what manipulates gravity around your person, but it’s only powerful enough to support a certain weight range. Not a whole lot of these are made since they exist specifically for our team, so consider them… personalized.”

There was a small crackle when Yume exhaled into her mask, the stiff material muffled her voice as she spoke too. “If I were to wear yours?”

“We mostly utilize these to gain height advantage with jumps and to cushion our landings. Not much would change if you wore my rig, but if I jump off a building in yours, I’d probably kiss the ground.”

Sugar-coated words elicited a gasp. “So you would die?”

Kagehisa simply grinned before placing his mask over his face.

Yume worked to get herself situated in her rig, adjusting the elastic risers that connected the garter-like leg loops to the waistbelt. She mimicked Kagehisa as he demonstrated how to turn on the AG disk.

“Alright, we’ll practice the basics before we do anything else. You ready?”

Yume gave him an apprehensive nod, watching as he punched in a code for the door.

“Seals, engaged. Opening: External Doors.”

A small hiss charged into the small space and then the outer doors slid open. Strong winds began to flood into the dome like a storm which forced Yume to grab onto the back of Kagehisa’s rig. Despite the cold breeze, Yume didn't feel affected by the temperature in her sleeveless top. She simply grows annoyed at the strands of hair obscuring her vision.

Once the two of them stepped out, the wind started to die down. Kagehisa wandered over to the most central part of the flat rooftop, beckoning the terrified woman to join him.

“The AGMA is easy to use; it’s just on or off. The finicky part is timing it for when you need it.”

“On or off? Like I need to manually turn it on or off with the blue disk?”

Kagehisa chuckled, waving a finger to his eye. “They’re wirelessly connected to your TCs, so it’s the same process. Most of us use ‘engage’ and ‘disengage’ as the commands.”

A small icon in the shape of her rig appeared when she reactivated the interface.

Engage the rig.

The pressure in Yume’s leg started to decrease as her feet slowly picked up off the ground. Kagehisa stood and watched like a parent, hands coming up only to push Yume further away.

Red eyes grew wide at the accumulation of distance from stable ground. Yume started kicking her legs to move closer, but the disk allows for little movement once activated.

Yume burst out in nervous laughter. “Woah~ Wait, I’m floating!”

“Alright, now come back down.”

Disengage the rig.

Yume’s body dropped at the sudden return of gravity, knees wobbled with surprise, but the firm placement of Kagehisa’s hands was enough to keep her from completely buckling.

“Try it again, but jump before you engage. Before you come back down, engage the rig again just before you touch the ground, so it cushions your fall.”

"Okay, that sounds easy enough..."

Engage.

Kagehisa pulled away from Yume while she prepared to jump. He bid her an encouraging nod, and she took the leap, successfully suspending before her body naturally returned. Their eyes met as Yume counted the growing distance, waiting for some sort of sign that she was high enough to come back down. 

He nodded, and the rig disengaged. She braced herself for the impact but was able to catch herself with a few inches to spare as she re-engaged the rig. Her eyes sparkled with excitement as she shifted the weight between her feet. Her contagious smile was infectious, “This is so cool! I didn’t know this kinda stuff could exist in a dream.”

Kagehisa’s smile faltered at those words, and his voice dropped. “We should go.”

“Where are we going?”

The excitable woman bounced after Kagehisa as he started to walk away, though her pace began to slow when he neared the edge of the roof, leaning over the railing.

“Kagehisa?”

Her best friend wordlessly searched for something below the clouds before he shot a look over his shoulder. “Do you trust me?”

Yume boldly stepped forward, but her emotions swayed between confidence and uncertainty. Her answer was caught in the back of her throat as she made apprehensive eye contact with Kagehisa. 

He pushed away from the railing to face her, a sign he was waiting for a proper answer.

“Does your hesitance have anything to do with what you told me back in the jet? How I’m ‘not supposed to be here,’ and how this is all some dream of yours?” 

Yume tugged her lower lips between her teeth, eyes cast towards the clouds instead. 

“I need to know what you meant by those words, but you can tell me later. All I need to know now is whether you trust me or not.”

Her muffled breathing and the wind whistle were the only things she could hear as she tried to collect her words. Kagehisa's eyes read into her body language as he stood a few steps away. From the way she clenched her eyes uncomfortably and how she directed her weight towards her left foot so she could bounce her right leg out of anxiety, she was trying to take the edge off her thoughts.

“I’m not hesitant because I don’t trust you. I’m hesitant because I don’t know if I can trust a dead person,"  is what Yume wanted to say, but the roof was far from the ideal place to break unpleasant news to a person. 

What if he freaks out and jumps?

Seconds passed like minutes before Yume could finally hold eye contact with Kagehisa again.

Just because someone dies doesn’t mean you can’t trust them anymore, right? Otherwise, Guardian Angels would have a tough time doing their jobs.

But, if he is a guardian angel, is he asking me to accept his hand into the afterlife? There are certainly a lot of clouds around too… Bolts. Is this finally the end?

“At least I can witness a beautiful sight in my final moments.”

“Pardon?”

“I trust you, Kagehisa. I always have, and I always will so I’ll follow you to the end.”

Kagehisa stood there, baffled by the disconnected responses he got from Yume. Why were her words so ominous? A gust of wind pushed her off balance, and he shook his head at the sight.

“It’s till the end, but that’s good enough for me.”

Yume brushed her hair out of her face. “So what now?”

“Now you follow me!”

Without another word or even some sort of warning, Kagehisa does a back dive over the railing and plummets. The horrifying sight of her best friend jumping off a building elicited a shriek from Yume who rushed over to the railing and frantically called after the man.

“Kagehisa?! Holy f*ck! What do I do, what do I do?”

Is there no better way to ascend into the afterlife?! 

"Aren't we supposed to go up?!"

Yume paced the roof, occasionally peering down over the railing despite the clouds obscuring her view of what awaited below. She started to nibble on the tip of her thumb as she tried to pull her thoughts away from the worst-case scenario.

“I have a rig. I know how to use it. I won’t end up as a pancake and splatter my guts all over the pristine floors of whatever afterlife awaits for me, so long as I engage in time.”

Kagehisa’s previous words resurfaced in her memory. “The AGMA is easy to use; it’s just on or off. The finicky part is timing it for when you need it.”

Yume returned to the rails. She leaned over and shouted into the abyss. “Timing! You horrible, horrible teacher, you didn’t teach me how to time my landings! Practicing once at a drop from one and a half meters is nothing compared to this height!”

The wind whistled again, followed by a strong gust of wind that knocked into Yume.

Well, he certainly isn’t coming back up to teach timing. Bolts…

Of all her memories with Kagehisa, not one stood out more than that very moment of him leaping off a building like he was diving into the pool. The moment forced her to consider a free fall after a dead man into the afterlife with very little preparation.

“WHAT KIND OF GUARDIAN ANGEL DOES THIS TO THEIR BEST FRIEND?! YOU SUCK AT YOUR JOB YOU… YOU SLY FOX!”

She steeled herself against the wreckage of nerves, climbing onto the railing with shaky legs. She had a death grip on the steel bar as she cautiously threw one leg over, followed by the other.

“Oh, I am so reporting you to your manager when I meet them—if I meet them,” she hesitantly peeked down at the fluffy clouds. “Alright, you got this. Just breathe, count to three, jump and engage early enough to avoid kissing the ground. Easy!”

To every naïve little child who thinks clouds are solid structures, oh how I wish that were true right now~

Yume sucked in a deep breath and closed her eyes.

“One… Two… Three.”