Chapter 13:

Sever Your Ties; Pull the Plug (2)

Glitches in the Digital Afterlife


Heavy boots padded against the cement tiles, leaving audible traces of their presence as they both made a run for the far end of the rooftop. Kagehisa kicked off the metal panel as the cable wires fired from his rig again, reaching for the corner of the next building. He takes the fall, allowing the system to activate the recoil.

Yume grew more confident in her range with each leap, ignoring the sharp pain in her knee whenever she landed. Simple leaps turned into flips, and secure landing spots were found on small ledges.

Soon the buildings started to grow shorter. The pair descended onto low roofs and balconies of residential condos and private businesses closer to the ground. She recognized the little AI-operated convenience store she frequented for late-night desserts after a long night out, which meant the club was nearby.

Yume set her sight on a further target past Kagehisa, surpassing him on their little trail. “Last one to the club owes the other a blackberry smoothie!”

“Hey!”

The captain accidentally brushed a little towel hanging from a drying rack outside the residential unit as she maneuvered the narrow gap between the buildings. Kagehisa watched as it fell towards the grimy alley fall, silently apologizing to the family it once belonged to.

“For someone who nearly took herself out on a satellite dish, you seem to be adjusting fine now,” he shouted, dodging a hanging planter.

“Once you get into the rhythm of it, it’s not so bad. I feel like a superhero or something! This is the kinda stuff you’d do in your dreams as a kid!” Yume peered over her shoulder at the odd silence to ensure he was still behind her. “What’s wrong?”

“… Nothing. Keep your eyes in front. We’re almost there.”

Yume retracted her grapple unit and slid down the slanted shingles of a closed tea shop. She steadily landed on her feet, stepping away to give Kagehisa room of his own. Tucked away at the entrance of an alley, the tea shop looked dark but cozy, with only a single light hanging above the entrance to soften its exterior. A slanted green sign read, A Cup of Reeve’s, earning an amused chuckle.

Kagehisa dusted off the back of his pants before nudging his head towards the alley’s opening. Yume trudged along after him, eyeing the suspiciously quiet sidewalks and the closed storefronts as they exited the alley and crossed the street.

“That’s weird? Where is everyone? It’s a weekend too, shouldn’t people be lining up for the—” Yume stopped outside of their destination, words trailing off. “club?”

Red eyes scanned the rough shape of the exterior, taking notice of the signature LED sign that remained unlit, the shutter barricaded the entryway and some graffiti that littered the walls. Not a single person was seen in the usual line, let alone the streets. Comparable to a barren wasteland or something post-apocalyptic, Yume turned to Kagehisa with a confounded look.

“What’s going on?”

Kagehisa’s eyes remained taut on the abandoned establishment. “The last time Club Yuzu was opened to the public was the night you ended up at the Southern Ports. Consequently, everyone within the Compound had been forcing your reinstatement as Captain since then—most notably from Rosiel.”

If she had to be honest, Kagehisa’s roundabout ways of answering her questions often left her feeling impatient, but he also wanted her to piece together the puzzle herself.

Yume let out an annoyed huff. “You’re giving me facts without substantive connections.”

“When you left the meeting early, what happened?”

With a low hum, she recounted the sour faces in the meeting room back at Sasagama. “They were mad. Said some stuff about my leadership… typical angry oldies when they don’t get their way.”

“Did anyone stop you?”

“Rosie. I told you, she was acting weird. She made this really creepy face for a split moment before the elevator doors closed, but I thought maybe I was just seeing things or perhaps it was the lighting.”

“As I had said, it was one of your warning signs.”

Yume frowned, letting out an irritated groan. “What warning signs are you talking about, Kagehisa? You’re losing me here.”

He finally turned to look at Yume, discarding his contacts onto the cement beneath the sole of his heavy boot. She considered scolding him for littering, but she bit her tongue, knowing it wouldn’t matter whether she did or not.

“It’s not an easy feat to fathom possibilities that are beyond one’s limited knowledge of the world around them. Curiosity is best treasured for the inquiries that come from it—”

“Because questions seek answers, and if done correctly, it cultivates a perpetual state of inquiry and discovery,” Yume completed the familiar saying she had heard in the past. “You would always remind me whenever I was stuck with my writing.”

He grinned at the thought. “Sounds like something I would do... Does the name Aiko ring a bell by any chance?”

The air grows heavy and damp at the mention of the name, as if a heavy thunderstorm has just passed. Yume felt a dull ache probing at her temples as she tried to recall the name that sat on the tip of her tongue with familiarity, though the pain made it hard for a face even vaguely to cross her mind.

She swallowed thickly, shaking her head, to which Kagehisa groaned, obviously unhappy with her answer. “She’s someone important, isn’t she?”

“Aiko is your sister outside of this simulation,” he sighed, leaving no room for Yume to press further. “I have some hypotheses. So, Club Yuzu was the earliest of your memories in this Digital Afterlife, but for me and everyone, you’ve been a part of this simulation for as long as we’ve known.”

“But didn’t you say that things preceding my upload are simply facts, but not physical memories to you?”

“Yes, even though I can’t actively envision a memory of you before we met at ports, to everyone you have a relationship with, we’ve always known that there was a place for you. You are a character in this Digital Afterlife and essentially are filling the role for said character.”

Yume paused for a moment, absorbing the slew of information being fed to her. She perched herself against the club's exterior, slapping her cheeks with her gloved hand. This was the last thing she expected to hear from her best friend after a long day of boring meetings. At this point, she just wanted to lock herself in her dorm and drown in silence instead of muddling around an empty entertainment district.

“That’s your theory? A role?”

“Hypothesis, but sure. The life you are growing accustomed to here isn’t the same one you experienced outside. Everything in here is built like a story, a story that was created for you.”

“The Digital Afterlife isn’t meant to cater to anyone. It’s an open-world simulation.”

Kagehisa held up a gloved hand. “Considering the household name behind such valuable tech, I assumed as much. So my second hypothesis; this isn’t the Digital Afterlife created by Nicemann. I think Aiko created it.”

Her heart skipped a beat, slowly registering everything Kagehisa had staked out. She stopped assaulting her face, carefully eyeing the empty street and then back at the man before her.

“So when you asked me at breakfast if I’ve been hearing conversations, you were talking about the conversations between Sylas and… my sister, Aiko?” she tentatively asked.

The conversation was taking far longer than Kagehisa had anticipated, and time was running out. The meeting would have ended by now, which meant Rosiel had nothing to distract her unhealthy obsession with Yume.

“If this is the furthest your memory of the D.A.L. can go, then it’s highly probable that this was your ticket in from the outside.”

“A portal.”

He nodded. “At first, I thought the club closed for reasons relating to the business or the property, but then I realized it probably closed after you arrived because the system was trying to keep you contained here.”

“Warning sign… You said something about Rosiel acting weird as my warning sign,” Yume brightened at an epiphany. “Because every time I don’t adhere to my role, people start to do and say things to force me into character .”

Kagehisa moved towards the entrance of Club Yuzu, picking at the lock so he could open the dirty metal shutters. Yume didn't exactly want to poke around the closed nightclub, but she scurried over to help him push the heavy gate up anyways. She waited for him to quietly pick at the next set of locks.

“I think Rosiel acted especially tough when you first arrived because you were too conscious. Everything leading to this very point has been a matter of social control. A means to assimilate you into this Afterlife so you can play your part, but as you said, the Digital Afterlife by Nicemann shouldn’t be catering to one person. It’s supposed to be a utopia for everyone. That’s why I think Aiko might have created her own version of the D.A.L. just for you.”

With a particularly hard shove, Kagehisa nudged open the door wide enough to allow the two of them in. She ensured the gate remained still before ducking in after him.

“I mean, it makes sense. You have a terminal illness, but judging by your reaction at the Skytree, being uploaded was not a dying wish of yours. You have your reasons, I won’t ask—but I think Aiko made this to try and change your mind or something.”

Yume nibbled on her lower lip, holding back the thoughts that started to flood her mind. She took the pass from Kagehisa to leave her reasons unspoken, focusing on finding a source of light within the club.

The place was dark and cold, but Yume’s contacts activated night vision, guiding her to the breaker box behind the coat check. As the lights flickered on, casting a wave of colourful lights over the empty space, memories of the night she woke up in the stall returned to her. Memories of her own sister, however, remained foggy.

“Now, admittedly, I’m terrified. The fact you forgot about your own sister when you had been nothing but adamant about her tells me either you’ve spent too much time in here, or…”

“Or I’m dead,” Yume deadpanned. “I’m dead, Kagehisa. It’s why I’m in here in the first place. The Digital Afterlife isn’t a place you can just come and go as you please. It’s a one-way ticket, hence the name.”

“I was going to say it has something to do with accepting your role here, but you do make a valid point. Then it begs me to ask, how could you hear their conversations before? I don’t think it’s normal for a dead person to hear the happenings around their dead body.”

“But I haven’t heard anything since then… Maybe uploading one’s consciousness does something to the mind. Perhaps it was a delayed memory from my body’s final moments.”

“Or you’re still alive, and they've just gotten quiet around you.”

Kagehisa flashed his most convincing grin, hand latching around her wrist as he tugged her towards the back of the club. Yume dug her heels into the painted cement floors, freeing herself from his grip. The pieces were coming together, and it was starting to make sense why Kagehisa had dragged her back to the abandoned club.

As upsetting as it was to find out where she ended up and how she got there, Yume figured that busying herself with Compound-related matters would distract her from the heavy sense of dread of waking up in the last place she would want to be. Now, it was a matter of deciding for herself whether accepting her place in this world was her decision or a decision coded by someone else.

“No, I’m dead now. If you’re trying to shove my head in a toilet with the hopes of sending me back to the land of the living, then you’re being foolish.”

Kagehisa whipped around, eyebrows furrowed with confusion as he searched her face for some reason behind her stubbornness. “There’s still a chance you’re alive, and if your portal is back there, we need to try—not the head in the toilet thing.”

“Why? Why are you trying to get me to go back?”

“What do you mean, why? Yume, you don’t belong here.”

“Who says?” she took an angry step back, raising her voice. “I’m doing fine! Sure, this role or character isn’t ideal, but it’s not the worst thing to have happened, so why are you trying to force me out of here when I’m starting to adjust to this place?”

“You didn’t even want to be in here in the first place!”

“That was different then!”

“... How so?”

Yume shook her head. “Because—”

“You’re here…” a voice interrupted the bickering pair, turning their attention to the front of the club where Rosiel stepped out from the shadowy foyer with her naginata strapped to her back. Fujioka, Sylas and Aslin towed behind her, each holding a weapon of their own.

Kagehisa tutted, reaching for the blade in its sheath, while Yume remained defenceless. “It’s a simple investigation. There’s no need for backup.”

A shriek of laughter cuts through the tense atmosphere, earning a look of surprise from the pair. “Just as I suspected. You never give up, do you, Matsui? As if I wouldn’t know when a teammate is falling out of line or when a First Lieutenant is neglecting his duties.”

“It’s always about my duties as the First Lieutenant, isn’t it? First Dr. B, and now you? That’s rough.”

“Your sarcasm isn’t appreciated.”

“Your presence isn’t either.”

The navy-haired woman stepped forward, silencing her friends. “Enough! Sylas, Aslin, what are you doing here?”

Aslin stood still, shoulders squared and her face void of her usual cheery smile. Vibrant blood red hair replaced the neon green she had been sporting earlier on in the week, and uncharacteristically, she wore a plain black dress that reached her knees. Sylas similarly donned an all-black ensemble as if the two were dressed for a funeral.

“We came because we’re worried you’re losing your way,” Aslin spoke in a monotone voice. “We came to ensure you wouldn’t neglect your job as the Captain.”

Sylas offered a hand, despite the distance between him and Yume. “We’ve missed you, honey. The longer you take to fix everything, the longer it will take for you to come home. You promised me you would come home, so why are you here?”

Yume scrunched her nose in disgust at the term of endearment, one he's never used before.

“Why are you here, Yume?”

“Why are you not fulfilling your duties as the Captain?”

"Please don't run away."

Yume stepped back into Kagehisa, eyes wide at the blood-curdling scene before her. She wanted to smile, play everything off and send them off, but not even she was able to reassure herself that her words would be convincing enough for them. Her eyes flitted over to Rosiel, who stood with a wicked grin, the same one she had back at Sasagama.

“There’s no need to lie about an investigation. I know why you’re here, Captain."

“We’re here about Kaito,” Yume offered, hoping she could distract Rosiel.

All the other times Kagehisa and Rosiel would fight, Yume remained the mediator, but it didn’t work this time. Has she strayed so far into the no-go zone of this simulation that Rosiel refused to take her word as the truth?

“Kaito doesn’t exist—”

Kagehisa pulled Yume behind him, shielding her from the group. “I’m only gonna give you this warning once; take them and leave before things escalate, Corleone.”

“Or what, you gonna kill your own teammates?”

There was a pause before he spoke, a hint of sarcastic amusement hanging on his every word. “Seeing as I already have, what’s another to add to the list?”

In one fluid motion, the knife in his hand flew across the room, lodging itself deep within Fujioka’s eye. Yume flinched, gasping with horror as the youngest of the bunch crumpled towards the floor, blood and aqueous humour leaking onto the black floor.

Everyone paused, but only Kagehisa and Yume seemed to notice Fujioka dying next to Rosiel’s feet. The other three remained frozen like statues, eyes distant for a split second before they blinked in unison.

This was far from the reaction she expected from someone preaching about teammate awareness. Aslin, who was once terrified of killing a man out of necessity, stood unbothered by the dead body less than a step away from her.

“Fuji—!”

Kagehisa slapped a hand over her mouth, tugging her around forcefully as he hurried them around the bar. “Don’t bother. They won’t care.”

His free hand grabbed onto the back of a bar stool, hauling it behind him as he shoved the both of them into the bathroom. Kagehisa slammed the door shut, locking it before securing the stool under the handle as a secondary precaution to buy them time.

“Which stall?”

Yume sighed, pointing to the second last stall at the far end of the bathroom. Kagehisa brushed past her, pushing open the steel door to find a clean toilet and a half-used roll of toilet paper sitting on the dispenser. His eyes scanned the ceiling, the box of seat covers and the toilet itself, but nothing stood out to the lieutenant. In a last-ditch attempt, he pushed the button on top of the sensor with the toe of his boot, earning nothing but a loud flush.

“It’s not gonna work. There’s no portal because I’m dead, Kagehisa,” Yume sighed, eyes following him in the mirror as he repeated the same inspection process of every stall. Flush after flush, nothing happened. Yume remained at her spot near the counter, wearily checking the door every so often.

Where were they?

“Stop, Kagehisa! I told you, this was foolish. It’s a one-way ticket—”

“No, there’s still a way.”

“There isn’t!”

He refused to concede, evident in the determined glow of his golden eyes as he closed the gap between the two of them. He wrapped her fingers around another blade he had pulled from his rig. She recognized it as the jagged dai-kunai she trained against Rosiel with.

“My last is a theory that addresses the overall support system.”

“What, like the actual software?”

“You see, if I’m right, Aiko’s D.A.L. won’t survive without the main actors.”

“The main actors would be those I engage with. Would that not include the team? Sylas and Aslin? The higher-ups and—"

“No, focus on the immediate group. Without us, the secondary actors won't stand a chance,” he mumbled, pausing to look down at the knife in her hand. “You need to kill me.”