Glitches in the Digital Afterlife
Outside of the simulation, Sylas and Aiko loomed over Yume’s comatose body. Weary eyes watched the lines jump on the Holter monitor as it recorded her heart’s rhythm, their own pulses skipping every time the monitor lagged.
“Is this normal?” Aiko asked.
“No, but the device shouldn’t be faulty… We tested it on ourselves already.”
“Then why is it… Doing that?”
“Something must be happening to her.”
“And what would that be?”
Sylas released an exasperated huff, pushing himself to fiddle with the IV bag next to the bed. “I wouldn’t know, Aiko. I’m not in the simulation with her.”
“Geez, it’s been two days already, and I’ve been apologizing non-stop! Would you just let it go?”
He responded with a pointed look, one that conveyed a slight sense of hostility and disappointment. Aiko slumped into the cushioned desk chair, sighing as she slapped at her cheeks.
Of course, Sylas wasn’t going to let this go; she messed up big time. She was the reason her sister was in a comatose state, consciousness trapped in some simulated program designed after the Digital Afterlife—Nicemann Corporation's one-way ticket to a good ol’ resting place.
“I need you to finish the base of the code for the tracker. Our window of opportunity closes more and more the longer we go without. We need to get her out soon. Otherwise, she’ll die with the program.”
“But what if she doesn’t die? I can keep coding, so the constructs continue to support her, and maybe—”
“Aiko, we don’t have the facilities like Nicemann to keep the program running. Your coding abilities they’re great, but you’re just one single engineer. You’ll be coding every day for the rest of your life if you want to support Yume’s consciousness from out here.”
“I can start looking for a facility, somewhere away from Nicemann’s eyes too.”
His chocolate brown eyes settled on the photo framed above the minimalistic desk. It was one taken of the three of them from Aiko’s high school graduation, bright smiles all around. Yume still had her long hair then.
Sylas’ voice dropped to a small murmur, “No, what you need to do is focus on fixing this mess. Your sister never wanted a part in the D.A.L. We need to respect that, even if it’s not what we want.”
Aiko toyed with the panda-themed scrunchie from Yume’s desk, testing the elasticity before placing it back where she found it. “What if she changes her mind? What if she’s happy with what my version of Digital Afterlife can offer?”
“Then we can upload her when she’s made that decision for herself and when she’s ready, but not like this, Aiko. Your sister could still have months ahead of her,” he whispered. “Just focus on the tracker, please?”
“I know… I’ll work on it tonight and have it ready by tomorrow before I leave for class.”
Sylas hummed in response, sparing his partner another glance. “Get some rest. I’ll stay with her tonight so that I can figure out the feeding tube situation…”
The pair glanced over at the pile of nutrient packs that Sylas managed to find in a small shop on the outskirts of the city. The health care system in Japan was one of the best in the world, but getting these supplies would require proof of need. Sylas couldn’t risk getting Dr. Leifsdottir involved—or anyone for that matter—because explaining Yume’s current state would create more problems. Problems that would involve his employers and a lawsuit against Aiko for the D.A.L. program replication.
Aiko stood up from her seat, slippers dragging along the floor until they reached the door. She turned around to find Sylas sitting on the edge of Yume’s bed. He held her sister’s hand in one, and the other placed one of her raggedy plushies against her cheek the same way she’d usually have it when she read in bed.
“I’m sorry, Sylas. I truly am…”
The brunette didn’t turn to face the younger Nagayoshi sister. Instead, he kept his eyes on Yume as he contemplated his next words, lower lip pulled between his teeth.
“I know you had good intentions, Aiko. I can see the hard work you put into this, but it’s… It’s just complicated. You know what it feels like to watch someone you love slowly wilt away, refusing something that could give them another chance, but if it’s not our life, then it’s not our choice.”
Aiko nodded at his words, turning once more to leave only to stop for one final question. “How did you come to terms with my sister’s decision?”
She peered over her shoulder at the sound of a chuckle, one that didn’t seem befitting of the answer she expected. It wasn’t one laced with amusement or delight. Rather, it was a sarcastic puff of air that lacked mirth.
“That’s assuming I have.”
The simple response held too much emotion that neither reassured Aiko nor offered her a clue as to how she, herself, could accept something beyond her control. It was clear now that they were in the same boat, stuck in a state of denial over Yume’s end. The only difference was that one had a stronger mask to cover their bitter fears of bidding a final goodbye.
≡≡≡≡≡ ° ≡≡≡≡≡ ° ≡≡≡≡≡
Kagehisa disliked certain things, but he hardly hated anything. He disliked the taste of ginger, but he didn’t hate it. He disliked how the rig would ride up over time. A real nuisance but nothing to hate. What he did grow to hate in a surprisingly short amount of time was the perpetual state of discomfort he was in.
It wasn’t the type of discomfort one would get when they had to walk around in wet socks or when they sat on a suspiciously warm toilet seat. It was a despicably creepy feeling that sat heavily on his shoulders, forcing him to stay hyper-vigilant of everyone and their movements around Yume. Perhaps it was the paranoia settling in…
It’s been four days since Yume was officially reinstated as the captain, and “busy” was an understatement. The higher-ups had her running around like a headless chicken, sitting in on private meetings, sorting through several cases and missions that were incomplete or unassigned, and placed her as Fujioka’s mentor in weapons training.
Kagehisa found it an absolute challenge to get a spare moment with Yume outside of Compound-related matters so that they could talk without someone eavesdropping. It seemed like everyone constantly needed a sliver of her time, but he knew Yume was more than capable of putting her foot down if she needed a break. From the sidelines, he sat back to observe every interaction he could.
“Good morning, Amari!”
“Captain Nagayoshi, how are you feeling today?”
“I’m feeling much better, thank you for asking! How are you, Fujioka?”
Blue eyes watched the little exchange between the captain and her subordinates from behind the rim of his coffee mug. Now that Yume was fulfilling her role as the captain, everything in the Compound returned to its neutral state. The transition from her utter confusion and hesitancy seemed nothing more than a moment of cold feet to everyone. It would be hard to believe otherwise when her leadership skills took control.
Yume perked up at the sight of Kagehisa sitting in the back corner of the mess hall. “Matsui!”
The sour expression masking his face brightened just a smidge at the sight of her skipping over to his quiet corner. The heaping pile of food on her tray was impressive, and the black smoothie threatened to spill over in the tall glass mug.
He greeted her with a small nod. “Please don’t call me by my family name when we’re alone.”
“Yeah, but it’s customary to use family names around the team. Anyways, where’s the rest of your food?”
A straight face meets her curious glance at his near-empty tray. “On your plate, apparently.”
“Hey, I’m hungry! Let me recover by eating my weight in grilled mackerel!”
“Grilled mackerel, tamagoyaki, two bowls of miso soup, three scoops of rice—how balanced—an entire marinated daikon, three servings of gomae and a blackberry smoothie in a tankard.”
“It’s not a tankard! It’s just a…”
“It’s a tankard.”
Yume murmured an offer of her food to Kagehisa while she took a pointed sip from her smoothie with one hand, the other reaching for the fish with her chopsticks.
“No, you go right ahead. You need the energy with your busy schedule, I don’t have an appetite.”
It was an amusing sight to behold. Captain Nagayoshi (27), standing at 170 centimetres tall and weighing in at 53 kilograms, shovelling down two and a half people’s worth of food in one sitting. The obnoxious slurping of her soup offended just about every who lived and breathed Western mannerisms, but the kitchen staff lurking behind the curtain basked in the appreciative spectacle.
“I miss eating,” Yume groaned as she picked at the remnants of her spinach salad.
“Did you not eat dinner last night?”
“Fujioka and I accidentally trained through dinner time. I offered to eat with him after, but I was called out to meet with a government official.”
Kagehisa raised an eyebrow at this. “For what?”
“She’s holding a gala next week, and there was a list of attendees she wanted me to look over.”
“They couldn’t have sent it through an email?” Yume shrugged as she took yet another sip of her smoothie. “This is ridiculous. Your schedule shouldn’t be this packed.”
“I was gone for a while, just got lots to catch up on…”
He tapped his finger on the table, eyes boring holes into the lone bowl of his cold tofu. Yume picked at the crumbs on her dish, eyes flitting between the pensive lieutenant and his meagre breakfast.
“You gonna finish that?” Kagehisa rolled his eyes at the hungry glint in her blue eyes, surrendering his food to Yume. “Thank you!”
Golden eyes immediately scan the room at the sound of shuffling trays and sudden movements. The kitchen staff rushed back to work, and the remaining team cleared out of the mess hall to get on with their days. Now the sole occupants in the room, Kagehisa deemed it safe enough to talk.
“Have you heard any conversations lately?”
Yume dropped her tofu at the odd question, tilting her head as she tried to pick up the slippery soy cube once more. “What conversation?”
“You know? The conversations,” he pointed to his temple. “With Sylas and…”
“Oh, right! No, we’ve been quite busy, so we’ve only casually checked in through text. I should call him tonight!”
“No, I meant—”
Kagehisa frowned at the orotund voice interrupting his conversation. He silently cursed at the intruding tone that grated his nerves, forcing himself to turn his attention to the unwanted visitor. His resentful glare was mirrored perfectly by rosewood-coloured eyes of the same distaste.
“Corleone, care to give us a moment of privacy?”
“No, because I’m here to escort Nagayoshi to the next meeting. I have important matters to debrief her on.”
“I’m asking for a minute. It shouldn’t be hard to allow that much since Yume is still eating.”
Rosiel panned her attention to Yume cautiously sipping at her large smoothie, watching the hostility boil down to a simmer. “Is that a tankard?”
“It’s a tankard,” Kagehisa interjected. “Now, just one moment.”
The team advisor shifted into a domineering stance, arms crossed over the black utility vest that sat flush against the rest of her uniform. Feeling challenged, Kagehisa pushed himself to stand in his seat without breaking their eye contact. Yume unsuccessfully interjected with a brittle call of her friends’ names.
Why is this always happening?
Rosiel leaned into Kagehisa, teeth bared as she spoke. “Unless you have important work-related matters to discuss with our captain, it’s best you save the personal banter for off-hours.”
Yume jumped out of her seat, nudging her best friends apart before the situation could turn for the worse. She didn’t understand why the tension grew thicker between Kagehisa and Rosiel, with each encounter as a trio. The mere thought of conflicts gave her indigestion, and it was starting to become a burden for her to be caught between them.
“A-alright, I’m done with my breakfast. Let’s head to the meeting, Rosie.”
The pink-haired woman huffed at the sudden break in her confrontation, stepping back to respect the subtle order from her captain. Yume gingerly backed into the counter with her empty dishes, placing them on the surface for the staff to receive. She refused to take her eyes off her best friends, afraid they would have at each other’s throats while she was turned away.
As she passed the table to exit with Rosiel, Yume shot an apologetic look over at Kagehisa. There was something of a concerned and desperate plea behind his golden eyes that she couldn’t quite distinguish, but Rosiel was leaving her little room to dwell with all the information spewing past her shaded lips.
Kagehisa fisted the fabric of his cargo pants, mind running a mile a minute to figure some way around all the obvious blockades between him and Yume over these last couple of days.
At the crux of his paranoia was Rosiel, an obvious opponent of his from the very moment Yume was brought back to the Compound. He hadn’t known it at the time, but the restless feeling of constantly wedging himself between Yume and Rosiel was done with a subliminal motivation to distance Yume from the higher-ups.
It was to protect her.
The pieces were coming together with his new perspective. Now that he was aware of the likeliness of some script existing, he could count every flaw in its structure. Ones that only seemed to come up when any sort of opposition was acted upon every time Yume failed to conform to her role.
Kagehisa hurried after the pair, firmly calling out for Yume by her respective title. “Captain, I wanted to propose an investigation before drafting the request.”
Yume halted at the bold claim, turning to face Kagehisa as he stopped before them. “Investigation into what?”
“Kaito, the man you took down the other night at the warehouse. He was implicated in something I thought you would be interested in leading.”
Surprisingly, Rosiel remained quiet, prompting a quick glance from Yume before she gave her response. “Draft the request, and I will meet with you tonight to start on the investigation.”
The blonde nodded and brushed past Rosiel, a smirk tugging on the corner of his lips. “Who said it wasn’t work-related?”
Kagehisa suddenly remembered something else he hated; lying. It was a rare occurrence for him to do so, but he was left with alternatives. If Yume could only allocate or be allocated time away from the Compound for work-related duties, this fib will need to suffice.
“Corleone, make sure my schedule is free tonight. You will be in charge of the Compound while I'm off-base with Matsui.”
Rosiel clenched her jaw, biting back the urge to throw a punch at the lieutenant’s smug face. He was presenting himself as a nuisance again, foiling her plans, but there wasn’t anything she could do about it.
Not yet, at least.
With a firm nod, she smiled at Yume. “Yes, Captain.”
Kagehisa offered a very casual bow, one that didn't bend below the height of his shoulders. His actions were more carefree than ever and maybe just a tad bit reckless. He was never one to go against the rules as the exemplary role model for most, but he might as well have given the middle finger to Rosiel just now.
Yume didn't miss the mischievous glint in his golden eyes; a tell that Kagehisa was about to bend some rules for the rare appearance of his rebellious attitude. Rosiel could sense this too, and she bit the bullet to remain calm and composed in front of her Captain. Even if she wanted to do something, to delegate anyone to keep an eye on Kagehisa, she would have to wait until Yume left the base in her care tonight.