Chapter 4:

Freedom Amongst the Clouds

Bullet Loop


I left the compound behind and began up a flight of stairs. What seemed like an overstreet bridge at first lead up and up until it leveled out into a plaza-style platform three floors above ground level.

Here, the real streets began. Grey residents just a minute ago turned out to be the bases for the skyscrapers that were now visible above between breaks in the clouds. Though I was well over thirty meters up from what was the real ground, the streets here were just as grimy as the ones layered below.

It would take another flight of stairs over a street bridge and a short elevator ride to reach the beginning of the upper city proper. To the soundtrack of a low metallic murmur, I was carried well above the wildest dreams of anyone living in the city below. Entering the rooftop district, I stepped out onto a promenade bordered by an artificial view, the advertisement of a tropical veranda projected across the night sky for half a kilometer in either direction.

Funny, how the advertisers adapted to the demands of their clientele.

As I ran out on top of the nearest railing, I saw peeks into the unrestrained, holographic jungle below. It was like a mind-numbing whirlpool of clashing colors, and no doubt, dozens of slogans that weren't allowed to reach up here. In order to get respect, you already had to be respected.

The buildings that broke the clouds around me now were little more recognizable than an army of sleek, nondistinct kitchen appliances, ornamented to the teeth with vibrant, color lighting. On the faux wood boardwalk that I ran alongside, there was neither a single person nor any of the city's otherwise signature filth. After all, without people, there wouldn't be any dirt. and when one can be driven anywhere they want, why would anyone choose to walk?

I leaped from my railing and caught myself on a beam hidden behind the projection of a holographic branch. Swinging back and forth, I threw myself through the veranda, my skin bristling with a cold tingle as I passed from one vista into another. Conveniently hidden behind this tropical paradise was the open chest cavity of a construction site in progress. Another soulless, grayscale mass that will amount to little more than another monument buried in the clouds.

I take off along its sternum, weaving between the concrete ribs with no more effort than it takes to breathe. Once I reached the end of this floor, I leapt to the next husk in construction. From my view outside the promenades, I could see my destination approach. After passing through a handful more constructions in progress, the skyscrapers began to dwindle, returning to a more reasonable height of only a few dozen stories instead of over a hundred. I took a turn at the last construction site and took one last leap of faith.

Executing a roll, I slid down a vast, diagonal expanse of glass, smooth as a windless lake. The stories melted by and the clouds faded around me. As I approached the bottom of the descent, I kicked off the ledge at the end, transferring my forward momentum to cross the ten-meter gap between roofs. Here, I found myself in the dead center of midtown, a place that was not so much drenched as completely drowned in purple and pink light. My usual shortcut had placed me neatly across the artificial multi-story mountain ranges that cut the city into pieces, and I was now in the heart of it.

The jungle of advertisements and jingles that was merely a pipe dream in the sleek overcity was now my entire world. Floating screens and advertisement drones, half a dozen street vendor scents and booming speakers. Balconies and decks sprung out from the sides of each building like the infinite ridges of an accordion, each bearing some hole-in-the-wall bar restaurant more obscure than the last. It was the kind of place where people tossed cigarettes from one level, only for someone on the deck below to cash it, take a drag, and continue the cycle by flinging it into the night.

I used the diagonal crossbeam of a building's facade to cross down onto a skybridge. This led me between four buildings until it petered out at the rooftop deck of a tacky western-themed bar. I narrowly avoided bumping into a roving cardboard cutout of a cowboy before throwing myself onto the fire escape. From here, it was a descent of only two more stories before I arrived onto an abandoned skyrail that would be my concourse for the rest of my passage through midtown.

The graffiti that accompanied me on either side slowly morphed from the colorful, abstract kind that a bored, edgy art student would draw and into the bombastic, thick-lettered kind that a bored, edgy teenager would draw. As the mid-rises of midtown shrank in size, so too did the graffiti grow sparser. Before I knew it, I was running along a lone rail suspended in the night, the artificial, human life of the city behind me and the organically encrusted ruins of old Shinjuku ahead.

There was an air gap of a few hundred meters before I was once more surrounded by buildings. Except this time, there was neither a sight nor sound— the only motion in this part of the city came not from telephone wires jolting with the life force of a metropolis, but rather, from the gentle swinging of vines strung across the decaying, moldy shells of buildings.

If the eyes were the window to the soul, then windows represented the soul of a building. And without a single intact window, the many structures of old Shinjuku were little more than the bodies of titans decomposing on the forest floor. I never felt particularly comfortable on this final leg of my journey, as if I was desecrating the sacred ground claimed by nature in the wake of calamity. But from my path along the rails, there was thankfully no need to trust a footrest whose collapse was decades in the making. Nor was there any need to disrupt the grass, trees, and flowers that had completely swallowed the streets.

At long last, Shinjuku Station came into view, or at least the bowl-shaped crater that occupied the majority of its rotting frame did. The rail line that I was running atop came to an abrupt end, forcing me to make one last leap to make it onto the station proper. The darkness in these wild lands was palpable and utterly complete. It only deepened as I wove my way between collapsed walls and rotten train cars rolled onto their backs like dead beetles. The sounds of cicadas and night birds were soon muffled as I ducked into one of the few intact staircases in the structure. Here, I found myself among the many man-made tunnels that ran through the guts of the station, forming an overwhelming maze of cluttered pathways.

I started making my way by the patterns of coated arrows painted along the walls. For anyone unfamiliar with my organization, any attempts to interpret it would result in them getting hopelessly lost. But neither the cipher nor the debris gave me any trouble— within what was once the busiest station in the world, it was all familiar enough. As legend had it, millions would have passed through here everyday. Hard to believe after it’s been beaten down within an inch of its life.

A shell of its former self.

I tightened my mask as I strolled towards the decrepit ticket booths, vaulting over as I headed deeper down the path. Lights occasionally flickered as I walk down the staircase from the main concourse to the platforms. Where once a bustling platform stood, now only remained a sinkhole full of murky water.

I knelt and placed my hand in the water.

Not too cold tonight.

I took a step back and slid my right hand to the underside of my mask. After flicking a switch, I could hear the small oxygen tank immediately kick in. I tucked Eric’s phone and LB into the waterproof pouch on my chest. Aside from drops of water gently dripping from the ceiling, the dead silence in this artificial cave was reassuring.

Just as how it’s supposed to be.

I took a step off the platform and hopped into the murky pond below. A minute after I hit the water, I saw the familiar glow sticks below, illuminating the entrance.

Home…

Relief washed over me. After tonight, maybe I could finally get the alone time I desperately needed to work it all out.

I swam downwards, my mask puffing bubbles upwards with each breath. Through one more small opening, I changed course upwards. And soon, I broke the surface.

Piercing bright lights and rifles pointed at me from every possible angle. It only took them three seconds this time to recognize my face and head back to work.

I flicked the switch on my mask again, morphing it back to its standard form. Down the cobble-carved halls, I went straight for the locker room, exchanging my soaking-wet outfit for something less tactical. All black tights, like something you’d find people wearing to the gym in the old days.

Maybe they’ll just forget about tonight if I dress casually…

“Operative Nightfall.” I looked up instinctively as I heard my name over the PA system. “Report to the Captain’s Office.”

Never mind.

I didn’t have the mental energy to deal with this right now. LB fluttered down from the top of the locker and sat on my shoulder. Even she did little to steel my nerves. With Eric’s phone in my hand, I slammed the locker door close. The only bright side to all this, was that I didn’t have to worry about anything emotional in the coming conversation.

He was never one for those kinds of talks.

~

As I rounded the last part of the old, spiraling stone stairwell, the first face I was greeted with was Johna’s concerned one.

“Yin-”

I raised a hand before Johna could give me an earful. When I saw the Captain behind him though, I realized it wasn’t my partner that I should’ve been worried about. I could even make out the faintest hint of emotion by the way his eyes seemed unusually scrunched up.

The Captain grabbed my arm.

“Come with me.”

He doesn’t give me a choice— I was already being dragged through the door before Johna could react. The clicks of multiple bank-level locks reflected the privacy of the matter. He finally loosened his grip.

In stark contrast to the concrete corridors of the rest of the base, his office felt more like a science lab. The far wall had his large desk decorated with blaring screens monitoring news channels and classified documents. On its left were a few bookshelves and an oversized, vintage couch. On its right, was his small private laboratory, and behind the makeshift bench lab was a towering steel door. As a kid, coming close to that door was the only time the Captain had ever scolded me— even now it was taller than I was.

Today however, it was open. Frosted steam was pouring out the door.

While I was stuck staring, he practically shoved me towards the couch.

“Sit,” he said.

I pointed at the door. “Captain, the door-”

“I said, sit,” he repeated as he moved to the chair behind his desk.

Here we go.

I made my frustration known with a loud sigh as I sat down. As usual, he cared about how I felt as much as I cared about what he was bound to say next.

“Listen to me. This isn’t one of our usual talks.” The Captain straightened his back against his seat. “You have no idea the magnitude of what you’ve just done.”

I crossed my arms. “You know, for this not being ‘one of our usual talks’, you sure are starting it like one.”

“The Senate, Nightfall.” He started tapping his finger against his desk. “They’re going to do something about this.”

“Are they?” I cocked my head. “What makes you say that?”

The Captain pressed his thumb and index finger against the bridge of his nose. “Yin-”

“Don’t Yin me. You don’t get to pull the Dad card when it suits you best.” I got up to my feet. “We take up a contract, kill some lowlife, slink back into the shadows. Rinse off the blood and repeat. There’s no purpose behind any of it!”

“Our ‘purpose’ isn’t to start a war.”

“So, what? We’re just gonna keep doing this until we’re all too old to get out of bed? What are we fighting for?!”

Not to topple the Senate.”

Despite seeing his glare for years, it still didn’t fail to shock me to a halt. As I sat back down, I pulled out the charm from earlier and focused on that instead of the Captain’s face.

“Eric had something important to me,” I said.

It was a vague and dumb excuse, so I was fully prepared for the Captain to go on the offensive. But I was completely unprepared for the silence. When I looked back up, I saw his face had gone pale. A part of me felt more uncomfortable by his unusual reaction than I would’ve if he’d just chewed me out some more.

I looked back at what I was holding, realizing that was where his eyes were focused. “It’s an omamori charm. It… belonged to someone I knew.”

“Where did you get that?”

“I just said it was from Eric.” I raised my head again. “Were you even listen-?”

My words got caught in my throat— the Captain was now standing right in front of me. He knelt down, gently caressing my hand that held the charm. He faced me, eyes just as wide as mine, before he pulled my mask off with his other hand.

“Back… off!”

I shoved him to the ground with both my arms and got up before he would try any other funny business. “What’s the matter with you today?! You’re seriously creeping me out!”

But to my relief, the Captain didn’t move. In fact, he’s totally stuck staring dumbfounded at the ground, as if he found the most interesting stain in the world on his carpet.

“Are we done here?” I can feel my voice easing up— I’m more confused than upset at this point. “I’ve dealt with enough weirdos for one night.”

He stayed stock-still. Only his lips moved as he started to whisper something to himself. He didn’t stop his muttering as the various locks on his door came undone.

Yeah, no. Forget this.

When his door opened with a creak, I didn't hesitate on my golden opportunity to leave. I snapped my mask back on my face, making my departure known with only one word:

“Bye.”

~

“Ugh.” Once I was inside my room, I sighed as I slid my back against the door. “I’m so done with all this...”

LB fluttered out of my pocket and in front of my face, giving me a beep. I finally slipped my mask down from my face and gave her an exhausted smile back.

“I’m fine, LB. Don’t worry.”

She kept watching me, maybe expecting me to spill something if she stuck around for long enough. When I didn’t give her any answer, she flew towards the back of the room, her form glimmering under the fluorescent ceiling lights. She went past the barely-stocked bookshelf, my bed with the messy blue sheets, and the chipped wooden drawers. Aged posters of aquariums, amusement parks, and other popular tourist spots lined the light gray walls— decorations of memories I’d never have.

LB landed on my desk, right under my desk lamp in anticipation. I flicked it on, watching her walk in her usual small circle before coming to a rest.

Was this her way of taking a digital sunbath…?

My drawers broke me out of the pointless train of thought. I walked over to them, sliding the lowermost level out of its compartment. Once it came completely out, I felt all the way to the back for the small metal safe.

After pulling it out and putting in the combination, I popped the front open and took out one of the only few things I ever kept inside: another charm. I compared it with the one I kept in my pocket. There was no doubting it now.

Exactly the same.

KNOCK, KNOCK, KNOCK!

The banging at the door nearly made me drop both charms as I jumped in place.

Xan Ti
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