Chapter 9:

Trust Fall (4)

Glitches in the Digital Afterlife


“AAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHH!”

The fall was nothing short of comical and had someone been there to witness it, they surely would’ve had a good laugh.

Yume couldn’t pull herself to jump with the knowledge that nothing would be there to catch her fall, so on the final count, she had put one foot forward and let gravity do its thing.

She tumbled through the clouds as if she had embarrassingly missed her step and her body spun without control. Her limbs flailed around in the air as she hurled towards the earth. The motion sickness was starting to kick in.

If this was the G-force feeling she learned about in high school physics, she certainly did not like it one bit.

Yume’s never skydived before, but this was as close to the experience as she would get. Save for the missing tandem partner, a parachute and any training… Her visions started to dot, and the pressure in her head and chest started to grow—she had been too busy freaking to realize she wasn’t breathing.

Deep breath in, deep breath out. Deep breath in, deep breath out.

The air was fresh, probably the freshest it could get considering the distance it had from the busy city pollution below. It was crisp and free of familiar scents, but then again, she hadn’t been able to smell anything properly since she knocked her nose into the augmented platform.

Now that her breathing was back to normal, Yume could think clearly, assessing the unfortunate circumstance that Kagehisa had forced upon her.

That sly fox…

People in skydiving videos often put their arms out, so Yume attempted to do the same to the best of her abilities. Her body struggled against the pressures of the wind rushing past her like heavy silk.

The Neo-Tokyo skyline started to grow in size. The tall structures sparkled under the morning light, and vehicles followed transparent lanes like little ants. Views from even the highest penthouse were nothing compared to this unfamiliar perspective; its vivid beauty was truly breathtaking.

But where is Kagehisa?

Matsui, K.
Location: Downtown Neo-Tokyo — Neo-Tokyo Skytree
[Would you like to set destination?]

Yes.

His icon disappeared from the corner of her view and reappeared on a building off in the distance. The beacon provided Yume with a sense of relief as she made her way toward it. It was a process of trial and error and doing the breaststroke in the air was an error.

A set of comms would’ve been nice. A lesson in skydiving would have also been helpful.

Once Yume could control the direction she wanted to move in, she slanted herself towards the Skytree, keeping the pinned icon within her sights.

After decades of earthquakes in Japan leading to tsunamis along the Western coast of Canada, the country finally returned one of their own when their highly-anticipated (and long overdue) earthquake set off in 2032.

It was catastrophic, and the result of the tectonic movements led to a tsunami that pretty much swallowed up Japan’s East Coast. Tokyo was mainly protected by Chiba Prefecture, but the rising sea levels and erosions destroyed the capital.

The Tokyo Skytree was reimagined after its destruction in the capital by a wealthy family who had wished to remain anonymous. They donated a huge amount of money to its reconstruction project with the belief that the popular symbol of the original city would bring hope back to those who felt the effects of the natural disaster, and they weren’t wrong because it did.

The new Skytree was one of the very factors that convinced the government that the Chūbu region was indeed the safest place to rebuild the capital.

Over the next couple of decades, Japan thrived, and Neo-Tokyo became the very sight Yume was seeing from her freefall. She has witnessed many parts of Neo-Tokyo from the ground level and the lanes during her long drives, but it amazed her how insignificant everything seemed between all the titan buildings. The density was even more shocking from up high.

The densely-packed city grew bigger and bigger as she neared her rendezvous point with Kagehisa. He stood from his seat on the ledge of the Skytree and waved at Yume.

As she came hurling down towards the monument, Kagehisa shouted something at her. She couldn’t hear him over the rush of air, but through a very ridiculous game of charades, he encouraged her to catch herself in increments. Yume decided to feign ignorance.

His red eyes widened at the immense speed of her trajectory. Kagehisa hopped off the ledge and onto the roof as he braced himself to catch her from the late command. Yume smirked at the gesture.

Engage.

Kagehisa winced with anticipation, but with stellar confidence, she managed to catch herself short of the building's ledge. The blond heaved a deep sigh of relief, watching Yume with a careful eye as she slowly descended. He took a step back as she helped herself down, allowing him a moment to catch his breath.

"Were you trying to mess with me?!"

She broke out in a peal of laughter at the sight of his tired exasperation. “That’s what you get for diving off a roof and forcing me to go after you.”

Please don’t scare me like that next time. I was worried you would splatter like a pancake!”

“That would certainly be one way to go… So, why are we at the Skytree?”

Yume hopped off the ledge, joining Kagehisa on the roof as she took in the early morning view from the building. The city was livelier than she remembered. There was less road rage, just the hum from vehicles carrying busy people getting on with their day.

“We needed a space to talk without being overheard. It’s why I left the comms behind,” he addressed, moving towards the ladder to climb onto the bulkhead. “Even if we turn off the devices, the control team can still intercept.”

Yume followed closely behind, picking a seat next to him as the two looked out across the bustling city. She removed the shell from her face to soak in the air and the sun. Kagehisa propped an arm over his bent knee and grimaced at the idea of disturbing Yume’s moment of peace under the morning rays.

“There’s no need to beat around the bush, Kagehisa,” Yume opened one eye to peek at him. “We both have lots of questions, so let’s take turns.”

“Alright, how are you feeling right now?”

“About that fall? A little shaken up but in a good way, I suppose. In general? Tired, but also very puzzled,” she chuckled. “How about you?”

“Confused like you, but ultimately worried… Dr. B told me you were talking about the Taidana Shinkeivirus.

The mention of her terminal illness elicited a short hum, followed by a sigh. “Yeah. It sucks, but I’m happy it hasn’t completely tried to kill me yet… It’s a slow, agonizing process of inconvenient symptoms that are only temporary until they become permanent.”

“How long has it been?”

“Two years… It’s felt like a lot more like an eternity, but it’s definitely only been about two years.”

From the corner of his eyes, Kagehisa watched as Yume picked at her nails seeming troubled by the mention of her terminal illness. He started to feel sympathetic at the dispiriting news.

“I presume it to be terminal due to the previous cases involving death.”

Yume chuckled darkly. “Everyone always talks about advancing medical technologies being able to cure everything, yet here I am… A prime example that viruses and bacteria can all find some way to mutate—to adapt—just like everyone else.”

“The Coronavirus in the 20s mutated. Viruses require a host, something living to help them reproduce. As long as the host can adapt and evolve, viruses can also be subjected to similar evolutionary pressures.”

Kagehisa blinked, shocked that he was reciting a scientific philosophy during a time like this, but Yume only snorted with amusement. The lighthearted action allowed Kagehisa a breath of relief, though a part of him still felt worried.

“See, you get it,” Yume paused as she sorted through some internal conflict. “Can I be honest with you?”

“Always.”

She smiled to herself at the lack of hesitation. A small part of her worries started dissipating at the reassurance that she could still confide in her best friend.

“I don’t recognize Sylas. I don’t recognize Aslin or Rosiel either.”

“But you’ve known them for a long time? You’re married to Sylas, and as for Rosie, the three of us have been best friends with her since we met in high school. How could you not recognize either of them?”

Yume scratched at her temple as she tried to find the words to explain her perspective. “No, that’s the first thing that confused me. Everyone looks very different from how I remember them, and I’m not married to Sylas. We never got married because I turned him down.”

“So, what about Rosiel? You didn’t recognize her either?”

“I haven’t seen her in a long time since she moved, but she didn’t look like that the last time I saw her Instaframe post. Now, the two of you were amicable, but I don’t think you considered each other best friends.”

Kagehisa pointed to his neck. “I wouldn’t have gotten this tattoo for her if I didn’t consider her as so.”

“You never got that tattoo for Rosiel. That’s what I was trying to tell you earlier! That tattoo is symbolic of us and Aiko, not Rosie!”

Kagehisa shifted a little from sudden outburst to which Yume backtracked with a quiet apology. He could sense her crestfallen demeanour through the small, frustrated sigh.

“Aiko was the one arguing with Sylas, right?” Yume nodded, prompting Kagehisa to continue. “What were they arguing about?”

“They mentioned this thing called the Digital Afterlife.”

“I take it that it’s pretty self-explanatory by the name… Does something like that exist?”

Yume tucked her knees under her chin, briefly shielding the lower half of her face from Kagehisa as she nodded. “But I still can’t tell if I’m dreaming or if I’m on the verge of death. It doesn’t make sense for me to be in the Digital Afterlife with you here, nor should I be able to hear them if I am dead.”

“If I’m in this so-called Digital Afterlife, it would mean I’m… dead.”

Kagehisa felt his heart skip a beat. The singular clench of his chest reminded him that he was still very much alive, but… Would he know if he did pass over? Would he not at least have some recollection of his final moments?

“That’s why I can’t discern whether this is the Digital Afterlife or not. It wouldn’t make sense that you would be here if you… If—”

A knot forms in the pit of Kagehisa’s stomach. The sight of Yume wiping the tears from the corner of her eyes indicates that she was holding back something big. It was an intuitive tell from Yume’s hesitancy to finish her sentence that she may have been withholding something he didn’t want to hear. She reached for his hand and swallowed thickly. 

As if she was afraid he would disappear, she tightened her grip. “You passed away two years before the D.A.L. technology was even invented. You’re not supposed to be here if this is the Afterlife.”

A gust of wind whistled past the two of them, and the fluffy cloud shielded the sunlight as it passed. Kagehisa leaned back in bewilderment, a trail of goosebumps dotted at his arms beneath his black long-sleeve.

“I was there at your funeral, Kagehisa. I mourned with our families. There’s no way I can vividly recall such a memory, it’s not fake.”

The two shared a look, and Kagehisa felt his mouth dry up. His lips parted from the shock as the sunlight reemerged from behind the clouds, unsure how to respond to such a claim. He looked down at his hands and then back at Yume who was now resting the side of her face on her forearms. His body felt stiff, yet his mind remained a wet mush.

Nothing was making sense.

Her lips quivered at the grim memory of the day she visited the Southern Ports for the first time. Dressed in black with a clear umbrella to shield herself from the light shower, as if the sky had been crying along with everyone at the edge of the pier.

“I suppose it wouldn’t be wrong of me to ask how I—” he paused to bite the inside of his cheeks. “died.”

“My father dropped you off at the station shortly before the terrorist attacks on the monorails took place. You were both caught in it…”

“February 22nd, 2098. Just short of our high school graduation,” Kagehisa murmured. “I was sleeping over during that weekend.”

While Kagehisa recited the brief events, Yume shifted to look at him directly, “You remember what happened?”

“I… I never left your family home that day though. I stayed over until the following evening, and my mother came to pick me up herself.”

Yume missed the way Kagehisa’s eyes widened at his own words. She was too busy counting her fingers. “What? That’s not how I remember it… You were supposed to stay the whole weekend, but Aiko showed signs of a fever, so my dad offered to drive you to the station.”

“No, I stayed because Aiko never got sick. Yume, you’re the only child in the current Nagayoshi family.”

“I—What?”

“I’m not saying that you’re wrong! I believe you, Yume... It’s just from my memories, you don’t have a sister.”

It was Yume’s turn to hold her breath, stunned eyes trained hard on something in the distance as she let the words soak into her mind.

I don’t have a little sister?

Frustration boiled over, and Yume started to tug on the roots of her hair. “Maybe I am losing it. Dr. B could be right. Maybe I dissociated and finally woke up from it at the club last night.”

“No. Memories can easily be altered, but not to this extent.”

“But during a dissociative fugue, the person can escape their reality without being aware. What if I dissociated and married Sylas? It would explain why I’ve been absent and why there’s this disconnect in my memories.”

Kagehisa gave Yume a pointed look. “Possible, but…”

“But?”

Yume raised an eyebrow at Kagehisa’s silence. She watched as he pinched the bridge of his nose, eyebrows furrowed as he tried to piece together his words.

“I don’t think you’re recovering from a dissociative fugue or episode. You ever feel like you know something, but you don’t quite remember how you came to learn of it in the first place?”

“Like a weird fun fact?”

“Sure. I know for a fact that you took time away from the Compound.”

“Okay, and?”

“I know you applied for that leave of absence because you wanted to have a peaceful ceremony and honeymoon without work being at the forefront of your mind. However, I can’t tell you exactly how it all happened. It’s almost as if this memory is intuitive, but I can’t explain it.”

Yume distanced herself from Kagehisa. “You’re not making any sense. How would you know I applied for the L.O.A. if you can’t remember me doing it?”

“Yume, everything I’ve been telling you has been done instinctually. When I reminisced on that sleepover in February, I didn’t actually remember the sleepover itself. I just… knew about it.”

A mutual silence blanketed the pair as they sat huddled on the roof of the Skytree in utter confusion, trying to recount every step and every memory to find some common ground.

Where did it diverge and where did it all converge again? How could he know but not know at the same time?

Yume tossed her head back, staring up at the underside of the Skytree’s needle to sort through her thoughts.

Kagehisa grimaced at the familiar, metallic taste of blood in his mouth. He mentally chided himself for the subconscious habit, one he managed to pick up only recently due to the stress of Yume’s disorientation. It should be normal for people to feel compelled to help their best friend in times of need. To support them through and through without sacrificing oneself, but there was a different feeling tugging on Kagehisa's heartstrings every time he looked at Yume, one he couldn't quite put into words. 

“So you don’t think this is a dream?”

“No, I’m sure a fall like that would have woken me up.”

“And it’s not the Digital Afterlife because I’m here.”

Yume nodded, leaving Kagehisa to huff. The confusion was brewing once again, nothing seemed to add up, but there was still room for determination.

“There’s gotta be an answer,” Kagehisa stood up from his spot, leaving Yume to miss the comforting warmth. “You said Sylas and Aiko were arguing, do you think that itself was a dream?”

“It couldn’t be… If I had only heard them in my sleep, then maybe, but the arguing started after I left Dr. B’s lab.”

“Do you remember their exact conversation?”

She scratched at the underside of her nose in thought, trying to recall the conversation from the hallway first. “Um, the first one from the hallway is a bit foggy, but Sylas just sounded very mad. I think he said he was trying to call me.”

“Okay, what about the one from your sleep?”

“Aiko was calling for me, she was frustrated I wasn’t waking up, and then Sylas chimed in saying something about my consciousness being...”

Yume’s eyes widened like a frightened cat, and her body went rigid. Kagehisa immediately reached out for her, calling her name and shaking to get some sort of reaction out of Yume, but she remained stuck in a trance. A small trickle of a teardrop trailed down Yume’s cheek, frightening Kagehisa as he snapped his fingers in front of her.

“Yume, hey. Hey, come on, what’s going on?”

This was almost identical to when he had found Yume in the hallway, eyes distant and locked into some spiral of thought that wouldn’t ease its grip on her. It was a sign of recognition. His thumbs swiped over the tears, hands firmly pressed against her to try and wake her.

“Yume, talk to me. Are you hearing them again?”

As if some hypnotist had used their release phrase, Yume returned with a stunned blink. “Uploaded.”

“Uploaded?”

“Aiko uploaded me. Sylas was mad because Aiko uploaded me,” Yume murmured. “Why would she do that?”

His wide eyes watched as tears welled in her eyes, turning into steady streams before she broke into a full sob. Kagehisa pulled her in close, and her hands fisted the fabric at the side of his shirt. He sat there, stupefied, as Yume continued to bawl into his chest. 

Choked sobs tried to stutter out more of her confusion, but none of them were coherent to Kagehisa. An empathetic urge to cry prodded at the blond as he felt useless. All he could do was wrap his arms around her to try and calm her down.

While Yume continued to cry, Kagehisa felt the obligation evolving into branches of emotions. A little flicker of anger now overshadowed the empathetic urge to cry, but he wasn’t angry at Yume, no. He was angry at Aiko, but the grounded part of him knew that the anger couldn’t be justified. He didn’t know Aiko, and he knew little to nothing about the Digital Afterlife that Yume spoke of.

What brought Kagehisa back to senses next was an uncharacteristic whimper and the further bunching at the sides of his shirt. “She promised she wouldn’t…”

If the Digital Afterlife was real, and everything in this world was some sort of simulation, then everything Kagehisa thought he knew would have to crumble. His existence would mean nothing, and every single… memory is nothing short of some generated sequence; a script.

Would this explain why he knew things without a physical memory? Does that mean everyone in this simulation is also dead? Are they also following a script? If everyone existed with a purpose, what would Yume’s role be in all of this? But Sylas isn’t dead, which started rousing suspicions in Kagehisa.

The familiar sound of a jet in the distance alerted Kagehisa. From his Techcons, he noticed Amari’s icon within range. “Their timing couldn’t have been better… Hey, Yume. You have to stop crying, I’m sorry, but we can’t do this right now.”

Yume peered up at Kagehisa through wet lashes as she wiped at her tear-stricken cheeks. “I’m sorry.”

“No, don’t apologize. It’s a lot to take in. Believe me, I’m starting to feel that way too, but Amari is on their way to pick us up, and we can’t be raising any questions. We must lay low and keep this talk about the D.A.L. on the D.L., okay?”

Kagehisa’s lame attempt to distract her went right over her head as her attention flickered to the small aircraft headed towards them. “Why?”

“Just promise me, you’ll keep this between us.”

Yume tugged on his arm when he tried to jump off the bulkhead. “Kagehisa, why? You’re scaring me.”

“Because I don’t trust the team! Not after what you just told me.”

The blond attempted to leave again, but a firm hand tugged at him again. “Why does that change anything?”

“It just does, Yume! I told you earlier. I know things, but I can’t tell you how because I don’t know how.”

They were running out of time, with Amari preparing to idle at a safe distance from the edge of the roof. The carrier doors open, and a ramp slides out to greet them. From the cockpit, Amari waved to signal them in.

“I have a hunch, but I need you to trust me until we figure more out,” Kagehisa whispered. 

His warm breath ghosted the shell of her ear before he retreated down the ladder and towards the aircraft. Yume watched him gently land into the cabin with the help of his rig.

From where she stood, she could see his lips move as he addressed Amari with his usual cheerfulness, the smile wide but a faint fall from the corners was enough to convince Yume that Kagehisa’s trust had truly wavered.