Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 1

If you have not read the previous chapter you may want to read that one first. Click the button below to be taken to the previous chapter.

Chapter 1

An officer crossed the black pavement before an old antique salon. Bursts of red and blue light from his police cruiser colored him. Loud howling sirens covered his colleagues’ voices. Beyond the makeshift wall of wooden roadblocks a crowd of onlookers gathered, painted technicolor in the storefront’s neon lights.  “Get back!” shouts an officer through his bullhorn. With his pistol in hand, the policeman approached the shop’s glass doors.  Taped on advertisement posters for several brands of vices block the view of the store’s interior.

“Please, chief, please damage nothing,” the officer hears a feeble voice cry. He glances back to see an elderly man speaking to his section chief. Looks to be in his sixties. Frail looking man; his hair is a field of gray. Slightly tan, a foreigner, probably some Dilet desert dweller.

“Yeah, sure… as if everything wasn’t damaged already,” the officer comments under his breath. The twin slabs of the shop doors partway with a weathered creek.  Some kind of black liquid greeted the officer creeping toward the doorway.

“That is not our concern,” the voice of his section captain grumble. “Our only interest we have is getting whoever is in there out.” 

The officer smirks. “You tell em, boss.”

A flash from within the store draws the officer’s attention.  Only the shadowed darkness greeted his gaze. With a deep breath, the policeman slips inside the building. His eye is lit blue as the scope scans the area displaying a technical read out. As it locks onto a flicker from a yellowed tube bulb, it reveals itself as the source of the disturbance.  “My heart skipped over that?! Damn it, Arikado. Get a hold on yourself.” he chuckles. “I’m really not in the right line of work.“ The room reminded him of some abyss.  Everything about the supernatural umbra was wrong. His eyes strained to see anything at all. Static came over his eyes, blurring his vision. “Come on, don’t glitch on me now.”

A chill crashed over his spine as the halogen light too disappeared. Out of his open mouth, a neon colored ghost floated through the increasingly arctic air. He raised his hand to his shoulder, pressing the switch on his radio. “Shit, I can’t see a thing and it’s hell’a cold.” 

“Hey Arikado, you scared of the dark?” joked another officer over the line. 

“Shut up Zhang,” Arikado growled.  Half annoyed by his situation and also that sudden realization it scared him. Not the unease he ordinarily felt, though. Sure there is always concern while walking into dead end shops with possibly armed suspects, but this, this is different. It is a living fear, a gripping dread. It clawed at his throat and stoles his air. “No, I mean, it’s darker than night. I can’t see anything.  I can’t feel my fingers either, it’s like I walked into a damn freezer.”

Taking a few steps forward, Arikado spied an assembly of shelves knocked atop an inky mosaic of assorted objects. “So much for keeping the place undamaged, damn what the hell happened here?” A rustle from his left side evokes Arikado to turn. He raised his gun, pointing to the stretch of unknown. “Come out with your hands where I can see them.” He shouted toward the haunting void. 

Red glare, a scream of pain, shouting, Arikado’s eyes grow wide, a sharp agony bursts from his stomach. The splash of his own blood slapping against the polished tile floor was all he heard. Disorientation, Arikado’s body is flung a crossed the room. A scream flew forth from him as he collides with the wall.

Outside, Arikado’s hollering alarmed the squad. After the crash, the captain roared, “Get your asses in there. Move, move, move.” Five officers flooded into the salon, drawing their guns. Arikado screams in misery in the shadowed corner. He used his arm to cover the gore from his splayed open stomach. A woman’s silhouette approached the squad from the darkness. Her static stretched locks spread, reaching in all directions. There is a moment of silence offset by Arikado’s whimpers between the police staring down the strange lady. “On the ground.” An officer commanded, but the woman’s only response was to raise her hand, revealing sparks dancing between each finger. 

A tide of people bashed against the barricades, bobbing signs up and down, reading various slogans against police abuse. A man lunged over the barrier, only to meet a police baton against his jaw. “Get back! I said get the hell back.” the officer who dealt the blow demanded. Gunfire silences all as its roar drowned out the sounds of protesters. The police push back, ceasing as the storefront comes alive, lit in muzzle flash. The suggestion of danger sending most of the crowd fleeing. All eyes frozen on the flickering storm. 

Between flashes, the twisted smile of the woman spreads. Her fingers splay open, stopping the bullets in mid-air, hovering for a moment as if impacting against something unseen, then dropped to the floor with a metallic ping. The woman’s milky white eyes flared into a blinding light, shattering the glass in the room. A supernatural wind turned the shards into an assault of shrapnel tearing through the law officer’s bodies. 

It thrusts the agent’s through the storefront’s windows; their remains rolled in fragments across the now bloodied pavement. The outside officers ran for cover behind their cars as the razor projectiles berated everything in their path. Kneeling over their cruisers, they aim into the flare of silhouettes, hearts pounding, gripping their triggers. 

Darkness returned to the still storefront. The shattered glass glistened with the first beams of morning light. Every eye gazes unwavering as the silence goes from unsettling to straining. Splintered shards pepper the metal of the police vehicles. Several officers screamed out in pain as they too fell victim to the explosion of shrapnel.

From darkness, the woman stepped through the hanging remains of the shop doors. She stood brazenly with pride. Her eyes were wide open and her face bore a crazed, toothy smile. Her skin was a burnish gold that embracing the figure of a gymnast. Each stride she took leaves sparks behind her. “On your hands and knees.” The captain yelled. Blood dripped off her body in thick streams, forming rivers at her toes. 

Instead of complying, the woman brought a bloody stride forward. A cackle escaped from her strange, feral grin. Unable to coax with his stretched nerves, an officer pulled his trigger, releasing a shot from the chamber with a loud pop. The led dot flies right at the woman, but it stops mid air, falling to the ground the same as the bullets before. “It’s a witch!” screamed the man. The patrol of officers open fire in a frenzy, each bullet bouncing along sparks shielding the conjurer. Step by step, she gets closer to the officers huddled behind their cars. She slowly turned her head like that of a broken mechanical doll, straining for movement. Her raised arm sent a blast of lightning destroying a cruiser, which turned the nearby police into a pulpy mess of tangled parts. 

The “witch” turned her gaze to another officer charging with both arms raised, about to slash her with his saber. Mid-swing, the woman, by an invisible force, splits the office open at the shoulder to the hip, spraying warm blood as he cascades onto the ground. 

The roar of screeching tires alerted the strange lady. She turned towards the dissonance as a pair of trucks barrel from the end of the street. She stepped over the officer’s split body, grinning to face the rushing freights. The heavy armored rigs rammed through parked cars and knock aside any sidewalk decor, shattering everything in their path. Turning his wheel and slamming the brakes, the truck’s driver spun the massive truck around with its cargo port pointed in the lady’s direction. 

A metallic groan escaped from the hangar doors. They rolled open, revealing a large steel-plated humanoid machine. The machine stamps out of the back of the truck, splintering the asphalt under its weighty triple toed foot. The gargantuan body is twelve feet tall. It resembled something of an armored knight. In its mechanical three-fingered grip is a long specialized rifle with cables and cords snapped into the machine’s forearm. The automated servos whine with each movement as it strides forward. An additional group of officers ran from the barricade of trucks, assembling themselves into three small squads. The decals SDP visible on their shoulders and bulletproof vests. 

A tall fellow dressed in a black captain’s trench coat takes off his hosed mask with an airy hiss. His grayed black hair sat atop an experienced pitted face. “Let’s finish this.” yells the older man. He pointed to one officer hiding behind their police cruiser near the barricades. “Get these assholes out of here. There isn’t anything to see anymore.” The panicked man slowly rises from his feet, giving a slow nod. “The regular police, what a bunch of cowards.”

Sparks float in the air in long streams running across the road as the lady growled. Discarded litter from around the city floated like leaves in a spiral wind. The armored suit lumbered in front of the group, squaring off with the strange girl. With its knee on the ground, the pilot took a sniper’s position, pointing the barrel towards the woman. With a loud shriek, a bolt of electricity ignites the machine, leaving a pathway of fire in the blast’s wake. It strikes the armor, causing a great spark to turn its white plastic plating cyan in the glow, its red lights dim for a moment. The ground flares several seconds after the blast as tethers of lightning rolled. 

When the goliath moved again, the blond monster pales. A single charge from its muzzle blows off her right leg in fleshy red strands, severing her thigh above the kneecap. She tumbles as her limb flies rolling and spinning on the ground. Her ribs break as she thuds onto her side, sprawling on the pavement. 

The older man chuckled. “Good shot. Now pack up so we can get out of here.” A squad of armored police rush in toward the girl with plastic ties, syringes and a large yellow body bag. An officer kneeled, seizing the woman’s wrist. With a snap, he prepares the plastic ties. As he catches her sapphire eyes, she gave him a taught pout from her rose-red lips. With her other arm, she pushed herself up, clutching his collar. He lets out a gasp as her nails dug deep into his throat. A powerful blast blows his skull to pieces with all the ferocity of a shotgun. The disturbing sight of the headless officer has the others stepping back from the twisting and twitching witch.

“Quit screwing around. Kill her.” Roared the captain. Drawing their large pistols, they blew her body full of holes. She released one last laugh as her mutilated corpse dances from side to side in the hail of bullets. With their ammo spent, her body is nothing more than a pulpy wad of flesh.

From above the storefront buildings on a rooftop, a shadowed figure in a cloak watched the bloody mess. “What a pity, the lady hadst shown promise.” 

Images of a dull burgundy flashed into Apricot’s mind. Asleep under the thick cloud of slumber, an annoying buzzing pierced the fog of sleep. She opened her lids to see her room transitioning between a red glow and shade. With a stretch, she turned her head towards her nightstand. A blinking alarm clock displays in crimson digital lights “8:23 AM”. Her eyes grew wide as hearing and vision became comprehensible again. “I will be late again!” Her grogginess had fled as the spark of animation thrusts her out of bed, sending the covers cascading to the floor. 

Not wasting a minute, Apricot snatched her clothes, placing an arm through the long sleeve while she moved through her room. Adjusting the green and white, yellow trimmed sailor. She glanced over at her makeup before deciding she hadn’t the time for that today, even though this pained her to admit. “Maybe just eyeliner, that only takes a moment.” she reasoned. 

Down the stairs into the kitchen, she found her younger brother, Jasper, already at the table with half-eaten morning toast. His eyes fixated on the television. Typical of Jasper to be attached to the TV in the morning. His ritual often kept her from catching something interesting before she herself got ready for school. Apricot expected to see cartoons or a movie, instead an emergency broadcast had interrupted the usual. A well dolled up lady in a deep red swing coat was explaining the situation. Her voice a dull mumble, the volume being too low to make out the reporter’s words. Apricot imagines herself in place of the lady in red. How wonderful would it be to have such an important story? Though she could not shake a guilty feeling whenever she had such thoughts. News media, a constant search for tragedies to exploit in some form. “What’cha watching?” 

“Oh, you’re up.” He snickered. “Your alarm woke me up again. You know, it’s annoying how you don’t shut that off. You have been sleeping through it lately.” Apricot hated how smug her kid brother could be. The least the little brat could have done was woken her up if he knew she was oversleeping.  “But look at this! The police had another standoff.”

Apricot opens the fridge. Inside are several leftovers and a few pre-made dishes still wrapped in plastic. Her father’s meals, as he often got home late from work. Over time, they built up like a museum of the past week’s dinners. She grabbed a half carton of milk, drinking from the cardboard fold out, and snatched a few eggs and a stick of butter. “You know you could be a good boy for once and help your big sis Jazz.” 

Jasper laughed. “You could be responsible for once and get yourself up.” His eyes ever fixed on the screen, letting out a gasp. “Wo, there is blood everywhere.” 

Apricot lifts her head from the fridge, looking up at the image of bodies and limbs and pools of crimson spread like modern art over the wide pavement. “Jasper Signa! You know you are not supposed to watch this stuff!” 

“It’s the news, and Mom is not home anyway, so stop lecturing me.” said Jasper.

“But Dad is home.” the color drained from Jasper’s pale face as he swung in his chair to see his father standing behind him. He placed his hand on Jasper’s back. “What is this?” he asked in a raised tone. A sense of satisfaction filled Apricot, knowing their father caught him being a jerk. She springs up, closing the fridge door with her foot. With the stove top burner, she starts an omelet for breakfast. 

“It’s the news…” Jasper mumbled. “Some robber attacked a bunch of people. They had to even call in the SDP.” There is a hint of fascination in Jasper’s chirp. “Sachiban model 4s, Dad.” 

“Huh, I see. Well, your sister’s right, your mother would be furious if she found out you were watching this. So turn it off.” said their father.

Jasper pouted, but lifted the remote and flipped off the television. However, Apricot’s father continued, “And missy, you are late for school. Think you have time for making breakfast when you’re already late?” 

She froze, about to break the egg in her hand. “Ah,” Apricot moans as she senses in the pit of her empty stomach. He is right. “Yeah, you are probably right.” She moaned.

Held deep in worry about her recent string of tardiness, Apricot ran through the thoroughfare. It’s unusually lively with traffic, she thinks to herself as she weaved a careful trot through the crowd. To her dismay, the source of the commotion appeared to be a set of barricades blocking all movement. “Not today!” Apricot said as she sprinted up to the fence. 

Both her hands found themselves on the barricade’s rail. “Hey, girl, go around the other way.” A man in uniform shouted. On the other side, cleanup crews worked zipping gory remains into bags. “This must be where the attack happened,” Apricot thought. “Didn’t you hear me?” The man yelled again. “Go around!” His hands now redirecting her back where she came. 

With a sigh, she turned to face the morning street as if walking through a current in the wrong direction. Apricot slipped through the unyielding people but made little headway. She knew of another rail line, not on her usual route. It’s a few blocks away, and this rail did not stop at the university, but it was close enough.

After a quick jog, the station was in sight, but her heart dives when she sees the line has boarded passengers and room was becoming scarce. Bumping into people with sailing apologies, Apricot sprinted through the cluttered street. Just before the doors closed, a young man held the doors clear with one arm and reached out with the other. 

Apricot picked up pace, running faster as the cart speeds up. With her hand outstretched, she reached for the man’s open palm. He lunges forward, gripping the side of the train’s door. The young man lifted Apricot off the ground into the threshold of the trains’ closing doors. They slammed with an airy hiss behind her. “Hey there, almost missed your train.” He chuckled. 

Apricot blushed. “Yeah, thanks to you I didn’t.” The smirk on his face was a little exaggerated. That’s when she noticed him look her up and down. The stranger stopped at her bust for an ogle before returning to her eyes. “Oh great, he is a pervert.” She thought to herself. 

“Got caught up in the detour, huh?” he asked.

She nodded. “Mmm hm, so, did you?” 

“Nah, but quite a few people were complaining about it. I kind of figured.” He uttered as he leaned against the support pole with the other hand holding the headrail. “It’s crowded in here this morning. This route is usually empty, it’s kind of why I like it. With all these people, I feel a little uneasy.“

“That is pretty rich coming from a pervert.” Apricot thought. “Yeah, I know the feeling.” Apricot bit her tongue, not wanting to say anymore.

“What’s worse, I heard they had to shut down the entire system in Ginzu for repairs. A lightning storm during a robbery. What a load of shit. You ever see a freak lightning storm mess up a rail system?” Apricot shook her head. “Yeah, I have not either.” A kind of silence visits for a brisk moment. She knew what kind of pause this is; the man is waiting for her to start a conversation, but her mood is not willing after being ogled.  Huh, uncomfortable, sure, he knows all about it.  Wrote the damn book on it. A sigh rolls from his mouth. “So, what brings you out this lovely morning?” 

“Ah, I am going to Uni. I ah, I’m studying journalism.” Apricot had always found herself proud of her chosen line of work.  There is a certain level of trust between the government and the media that allowed for a careful but controlled relation between the two.  Passing the state journalist exam is not an easy feat, especially for a foreigner such as herself. 

The guy smirked. “Journalism, huh?” he shrugged. “You got a camera?” The question struck Apricot as odd. Her eyebrows uncontrollably squish together. “O’ I figured a journalist would be into photography. I got this camera I am trying to sell. Thought you might want to buy it.” 

“Ah, no. I’m not looking to try photography.” A lie, but she assumed the camera was stolen or broken. 

The young man raised both arms behind his head. “Oh yeah, well if you ever change your mind, I ride the train almost every morning so, ah, come see me. The name is Cortez, just letting you know.” At first, Apricot thought he was coming onto her, but after a moment Cortez waved. “Well, see you around ok.” Unexpectedly, he blended into the crowd of people losing himself among the timbered bodies. 

A thin layer of sweat streaks across Apricot’s rosin cheeks. Her clothes were soggy from the jog to the university’s entrance courtyard. Her gaze met an LCD screen displaying a government broadcast along with the current time boxed in the upper corner, “10:04 AM”. An intense anxiety came over her. She rushes through the sparsely populated halls.  One thing she had always noticed is how they twisted into something like a maze.  It was as if the designers made the entire building to be as frustratingly confusing as possible.  To intentionally cause hardship to students, let alone visitors.  Like inside the vaults of each room are treasures hidden and there would be robbers would find themselves lost among the many turns unable to escape.

“The detour, they will keep the door open.” Apricot thought to herself; a solid attempt, but failed woefully at easing any tension. Upon seeing the classroom door of 1403B, she could see her instructor, Ms. Akagi, had already drawn down the off-white paper shade.  Her hand hovered just above the door nob.  A deep breath filled her lungs as a silent selfish prayer goes out to the almighty for divine fortune.  She twisted the handle only to meet the resistance of locked metal fastens. With a grunt, she tries again, hoping to will the door open, in vain, the knob only jiggles with little give. 

Taking a few steps away from the door, Apricot lowered her head, putting both hands on the sides of her cheeks. A tightness flowing down her face to her fingertips, ending its stream at her toes. She drew in a long breath, holding it for a moment before letting her air out with an even longer sigh. “Late again.”

Blue Ash on a weekday is not unlike any other bustling city, a shadow of the population. Apricot passed by people dressed in the various fashions along a narrow lane. Smells of skewered barbecue over a charcoal grill filled the air. Street vendors dotted the edge of the sidewalks with their food carts. The shops that line the road are very diverse, selling trinkets, clothing, and consumer goods. This avenue had always appeared more like a hall of commerce to Apricot. 

One shop that caught Apricot’s eye was a boutique window selling the latest style spread across mechanical dolls. The dolls struck an assortment of poses. They look vaguely real to Apricot. Almost, it is in that small gap between the two she that unsettled her. Something about the eyes. They were dead, yet animate. The bustle of programmed synths diverted her attention to an arcade. “I have little else to do.” She considered. Being drawn in by the blinking neon lights, she enters the somewhat dingy “Game Palace”. 

Inside smelled of a piped scent. Apricot figured it was an attempt to cover the humid heat generated by a mix of body sweat and cigarette smoke. Spread a crossed the walls are various flashing arcade cabinets, each playing an assortment of tunes that blended together to form that iconic sound. It was a cacophony but had a pleasant ring that Apricot associated with a fun time. One game had been the flavor she was hoping would cheer her up. A side-scrolling hack and slash by Capnom called Queen Of Dragons. A game Apricot was pretty good at. The last time she had been here, she got to the third stage on a single coin. Today, though, she was determined to get further.

The machines dimmed while a slight flicker came over the screens. “Crap, the power is going out again. Seriously.” A specter of breath fades into the open air from her mouth. Her skin crawled in the frigid air as if she had walked into a freezer. The cold fades as quickly as it appeared, but not before causing all the systems to reset. Each one had started their boot sequences, which invoked her to let out a whine of boredom. The appeal of battling against pixilated monsters had left and herself as well. 

She continued to wander the vitrines until finding herself on an unfamiliar side street. The shops around here are of another era; dusty old places that were long forgotten. She passed by a hardware store, an electronics boutique, a very shady looking pawn shop, second-hand stores, and a small market called Wiseman’s.  A chain she had never even heard of.

The populace wandering the streets here was unlike the previous. If the ones before were people without a care, these made her consider she may be in danger. After several men gave her unwelcome glances that said everything she needed to know, Apricot decides it would be best to get back onto more populated streets. When she went to turn the corner, four guys kicking another man in the ribs welcomed her. He barked out as each strike knocked his body from side to side. She stood with wide eyes of horror before shouting, “Stop!” As the guys turned to consider her, she realized the folly of her reflexive action. 

Now she had the audience of four rather hard-looking men. The tallest one delivered a last kick into the guy’s face. “Yeah, let’s get out of here. Remember to have the rest of it, punk. If not, get the hell out of town or else.” All four men walk towards Apricot. Her throat grew tight. Without so much as a glance, the four walked past her. She looks down at the man. He spat up a line of blood from his mouth. 

As she stared at the guy on the ground, it shocks her to recognize him. It’s the guy she talked to on the train. Apricot narrows her eyes. “Are you alright? Do I need to call the cops?” she said.

“No.” He groaned while getting to his feet. “Don’t do something stupid like that. Stay out. It’s none of your business, reporter.” Without even regarding her, he limped out of the back street. Apricot wanted to go with him to at least make sure he was ok, but she knew it was best if she did not. Getting involved with people like that can get you hurt, sometimes worse. Unlike most, Apricot appreciated the unseen. Her wish to become a journalist had brought out a pseudo-respect that some things are best left unknown. 

After several streets, Apricot saw a familiar sign “Utopian Theaters” and knew where she was. Further down the road was a small cafe called “Hot Shots.” Upon entering an aromatic scent of brewed espresso greeted Apricot. Inside the decor, a pleasant chocolate wood accented with soft green and red pastel windows. Light music canvases the senses, allowing for privacy but not enough to drown out your thoughts. As she walked to the counter, the smell of fresh baked goods wafted through her nostrils, causing an almost Pavlovian salivation to occur. “Hey girl, I thought you had school.” Apricot looked up to see the bright blue eyes of Bonni Willox, one of her best friends from high school. 

“Bonni!” Apricot chirped with delight, reaching over the countertop to give a warm hug. “I did not know you worked here?” 

“Yeah, well, I needed a part-time job. Turns out you can’t be a movie star without having one.” She laughs. “So what brings you here?” 

“I was late for class. Stupid detour blocked my train,” Apricot shrugged. 

Bonni leaned over, whispering, “I got a story for you. I overheard the cops talking about that. They spoke of the Okabe officials being real upset about not getting the robber alive. Instead, though, they didn’t refer to them as a robber, but rather the witch. A little odd considering the circumstances. How out of place is a freak lightning storm? And how many people died?” 

Apricot smirked. “How is that a story?  Sounds more like a story for a novel.” 

“Heh, well normally I would agree, but the way they were chatting about it was not like the typical upset they had to kill her, but… like they wanted her.  Kept saying they had a deadline to bag them.” Bonni leaned over onto the counter, drumming her fingers against the polished wood. “I will tell you more about it later, but right now, is there anything I can get you?” 

Apricot nods her head before placing a finger on her cheek. “Just a coffee with Vanilla and a spot of half-and-half.” 

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