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A police officer crossed the black pavement in front of an old antique shop. Intense light from his police cruiser tinted his face blue and red. The voices of his colleagues were drowned by howling sirens. On the other side of the makeshift wall of wooden roadblocks, a crowd of onlookers stood gazing at the neon lights illuminating the storefront. “Get back!” a police officer shouted through his bullhorn. Armed with his gun, the policeman approached the shop’s glass doors. Posters for several brands of vices are taped to the walls, blocking the view of the interior of the store.
A feeble voice cries, “Please, chief, don’t damage anything.” Looking back, he sees an elderly man talking to his section chief. Approximately sixty years old. A man of frail appearance with gray hair. A foreigner, tanned, and probably a desert dweller from Dilet.
“Sure… as if everything wasn’t damaged already,” the officer remarks under his breath. There is an audible creak from the twin slabs of the shop doors. As the officer crept toward the doorway, he encountered a black liquid.
The voice of his section captain grumbled, “That’s not our concern. All we care about is getting everyone out.”
A smirk spread crossed the officer’s face. “You tell ‘em, boss.”
As the officer watched, a flash of light came from within the store. The only thing in sight was shadowed darkness. Entering the building slowly, the officer breathes in deeply. The holo-lense illuminated his eye as he scanned the area, displaying a technical reading. As it detected the flicker of a yellowed tube bulb, it revealed itself as the source of the disturbance. “My heart skipped over that?! Damn, Arikado. Don’t freak out.” He laughed. It was only then that he realized that the darkened room reminded him of an abyss, and everything about it seemed wrong. His eyes were filled with static, making it impossible to see anything. “Come on, don’t glitch on me now.”
While the halogen light vanished too, a chill ran up his spine. As the air became increasingly arctic, a neon-colored ghost floated from his open mouth. Pressing the radio switch on his shoulder, his body became cold. “Shit, I can’t see a thing and it’s hell’a cold.”
“Hey Arikado, are you scared of the dark?” a fellow officer jokingly asked.
“Quit talking, Zhang,” Arikado growled. He was sick of the situation and slightly scared at the realization. Still, it wasn’t the usual unease he felt. There is always some concern when walking into dead-end shops with potentially armed suspects, but this was different. It was a living fear, a gripping dread. He felt its claw on his throat and it stole his breath. “No, not at all. It’s dark as night. It’s impossible to see anything. I can’t feel my fingers, it’s like walking into a damn freezer.”
Stepping forward, Arikado looked at a collection of shelves strewn among an inky mosaic of a variety of objects. “So much for keeping the place undamaged, damn what the hell happened here?” Arikado turned as a rustle stirred on his left side. The officer held a gun out toward the distance, pointing into the unknown. “Come out with your hands so I can see them.” He ordered toward the dark mystery.
A red glare, a scream of pain, a yell – Arikado’s eyes widened as a sharp pain burst from his stomach. He could only hear the splash of his blood against the polished tile floor. As Arikado became disoriented, his body is flung across the room. When he collided with the wall, he let loose a scream.
Arikado’s hollering alarmed the squad outside. After the crash, the captain roared, “Get in there!” Five officers poured into the salon with guns drawn. In the shadowed corner, Arikado screams out with misery. As the gore from his splayed open stomach dripped from his arm, he pressed against his wound.
A silhouette of a woman appeared in the darkness. The static strands of her hair spanned out in all directions. A moment of silence is interrupted by Arikado’s whimpers between the police staring at the strange lady. One of the officers commanded her to get to the ground, but all she did was raise her hand, revealing sparks dancing between her fingers.
There was a constant clamor as protesters banged against the barricades, bobbed their signs up and down, and read a variety of slogans about police abuse. A man lunged over the barrier before being struck by a police baton. “Get back!” The officer who dealt the blow demanded, “Get the hell,” Gunfire rang out as it drowned out the protester’s screams. As the police push back, the storefront comes alive in the muzzle flash, fear sending the crowd rushing for cover. All eyes are focused on the flashing blackness.
The woman’s twisted smile spreads between flashes. With a metallic ping, her fingers spread wide, stopping the bullets in mid-air, hovering for a moment as if impacting against something unseen, then falling to the floor. A blinding light flared from the woman’s milky white eyes, shattering the glass in the room. The shards were transformed into shrapnel by a supernatural wind, ripping the flesh from their bodies.
It thrusts the agents’ bodies through the storefront’s windows; their remains rolled in fragments across the now bloodied pavement. Officers on the outside ran for cover behind their cars as razor projectiles ripped at everything in their path. While kneeling over their cruisers, they drew their weapons towards the flare of silhouettes, gripping their triggers as their hearts pounded.
As the storefront stood still, the darkness returned. The shattered glass sparkled in the first morning light. The silence grows from unsettling to straining while every eye stares unwaveringly. Broken shards litter the police vehicles. In addition to the hail of shrapnel falling on the officers, some of them screamed in pain as they suffered injuries from the blast.
Through the remnants of the shop doors, the woman stepped out of the darkness in time for the sliding door to fall off its hinges. She stood blatantly with pride in her eyes. There was an insane, toothy smile on her face as her eyes grew wide. Her body was a burnished gold that embraced the figure of a gymnast. Each step she took left a trail of sparks behind her. “Get on your hands and knees!” the captain yelled. Streams of blood dripped from her body, forming rivers at her toes.
Instead of complying, the woman brought a bloody stride forward. A cackle escaped from her strange, feral grin. An officer, unable to coax with his stretched nerves, pulled his trigger and a shot was fired from the chamber. A led dot flew straight at the woman, but it stopped midair, falling to the ground as the bullets did before. He screamed. “It’s a witch!” The patrol of officers opened fire in a frenzy, each bullet bouncing along sparks shielding the conjurer. Step by step, she approaches the officers huddled behind their cars. As if a mechanical doll were suffering from broken parts, she stutteringly turned her head. Her raised arm sent a blast of lightning ripping through a cruiser, turning the nearby police into a pulpy mess of parts.
A second officer charged with both arms raised, about to slash the “witch” with a saber. Amid the mighty swing, the woman bends down, splitting the officer from the shoulder to the hip. Warmblood cascaded on the ground as the officer fell to his knees.
A roar of screeching tires alerted the strange lady. A pair of trucks barreled from the end of the street and she turned towards the dissonance. Grinning, she stepped over the officer’s body and faced the rushing freights. Several armored rigs rammed through parked cars and tore up any sidewalk decorations, shattering everything in their path. By turning his wheel and slamming the brakes, the truck’s driver spun the massive truck in a circle, pointing its cargo port in the direction of the lady.
The hangar doors creaked with a metallic groan. Rolling open the doors, they were greeted by a humanoid machine covered in steel plates. The machine splinters the asphalt under its triple-toed foot as it emerges from the back of the truck. Its body is twelve feet high. At first glance, it seems like an armored knight. The machine’s three fingers grip a long, specialized rifle with cables and cords attached to its forearm. As it marched forward, the automated servos whined with each movement. From the barricade of trucks, an additional group of officers formed three small squads. They wear bulletproof vests and shoulder decals bearing SDP logos.
With an airy hiss, a tall fellow with a black trench coat removes the hosed mask. Grayed black hair overshadowed a pitted face with years of experience. He yells, “Let’s finish this.” He pointed to one officer hiding behind their police cruiser near the barricades. “Get these asses out of here!” he shouted. He stands slowly on his feet, giving a nod. “Nothing to see anymore.” The man in the trench coat said. “The regular police, what a bunch of cowards.”
As the lady growled, sparks blew across the road in long streams. Discarded litter floated in a spiral wind like leaves. The armored suit lumbered in front of the group, squared off with the strange girl. As the pilot dragged his knees into the ground, he formed a position similar to a sniper’s, pointing his rifle at the woman. With a loud shriek, an electric bolt ignited the machine, leaving a path of fire behind. As lightning strikes the armor, it causes a great spark that turns its white plastic plating cyan in the glow, and its red lights dim for a moment. A few seconds after the blast, the ground flares as tethers of lightning roll across the pavement.
The blond monster paled when the goliath moved again. After being struck by a blast from its muzzle, her right leg is blown off in fleshy red strands above the knee. Rolling and spinning, her limb fell to the ground and tumbled. Her ribs snap as she collides with the pavement, sprawling on her side.
Laughing, the older man said. “Good shot. Now, pack up so we can get out of here.” A squad of armored police rushed forward to take the girl, carrying syringes, ties, and a large yellow plastic bag. A police officer kneeled, grabbing the woman’s wrist. Plastic ties were prepared with a snap. Her rose-red lips crease up into a tight curtsey as he catches her sapphire eyes. As she pushed herself up, she clutched his collar with the other arm. His throat was pierced by her nails, causing him to gasp for breath. It is as if a shotgun blast tore into his skull with all its ferocity. The sight of the headless officer makes the others step back from the twisting and twitching witch.
“Quit screwing around. Shoot her.” Roared the captain. As they drew their pistols, they shot her body with bullets. As her mutilated corpse danced from side to side in the hail of bullets, she laughed one last time. Her body was nothing more than a pulpy wad of flesh after their ammo was spent.
Some distance from the action a shadow in a cloak sat on a rooftop watching the bloody scene beneath the storefront buildings. “What a pity, the lady had’st shown promise.”
A vision of a dull burgundy flashed through Apricot’s mind. Under the thick cloud of slumber, an annoying buzz disturbed the peace. Her room changed from a red glow to shade as she opened her eyes. She turned her head towards her nightstand as she stretched. In crimson digital lights, an alarm clock blinked “8:23 AM”. As her hearing and vision became clearer, her eyes grew wide. “I will be late again!” Her grogginess was gone as she stood up, sending her covers cascading to the ground.
As she moved through her room, Apricot grabbed her clothes and put an arm through one sleeve. She adjusted the green and white seifuku with yellow trim. Although it pained her to admit it, she glanced over at her makeup before deciding she didn’t have the time today. “Perhaps just eyeliner will do, that only takes a moment.” she reasoned.
As she climbed down the stairs, she spotted her younger brother, Jasper, sitting at the breakfast table with half-eaten morning toast. His eyes were glued to the television. This was typical of Jasper. Instead of cartoons or a movie, an emergency broadcast drew Apricot’s attention. A well-dressed woman in a deep red swing coat reported an incident. The volume was far too low to make out what was being said. Apricot imagined herself in the position of the lady in red. If only, she thought, she could tell such an important story. However, she could not shake the guilt she felt whenever such thoughts occurred. Sadly, news media are always seeking ways to exploit tragedies. “What’cha watching?” she asked.
“Oh, you’re up.” Jasper snickered. “I was woken up again by your alarm. It’s annoying how you never turn it off. You’ve been sleeping through it lately.” Apricot hated the way her little brother could be so smug. If he knew she was oversleeping, the little brat should have woken her up. “But look at this!” he said. “The police had another standoff.”
Apricot opened her fridge. Plastic still covered a few leftovers and pre-made dishes. Meals for her father, as he often got home late from work. Eventually, they accumulated like a museum of the past week’s dinners. After grabbing half a carton of milk, she took a swig from the cardboard fold out and snatched some eggs and butter. “You know you could be a good boy for once and help your big sis, Jazz.”
The boy laughed. “Get yourself up.” His eyes never averted from the screen. “Wow, there’s blood all over.” His mouth dropped open.
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!” she shouts. “You know you’re not supposed to watch this stuff!”
“It’s the news, and Mom won’t be home anyway, so don’t lecture me.” said Jasper.
“But Dad is home.” The color vanished from Jasper’s face as he swung in his chair to see his father standing behind him. Jasper felt his father’s hand on his back. “What is this?” he asked in a voice of concern. Apricot felt satisfied, knowing that their father caught him acting like a jerk. By pushing with her foot, she shut the fridge door.
Jasper mumbled, “The news.” Before returning to his lively speech. “A bunch of people were attacked by robbers. The SDP had to be called.” Jasper chirped. “Sachiban model 4s, Dad.”
“Hmm, I see. I guess your sister is right. If your mother finds out you watched this, she would be furious. It’s best if you turn it off,” their father told a disappointed Jasper.
Despite his pouting, Jasper flipped off the television with the TV’s remote control. “Missy, you are late for school,” Apricot’s father continued. “Do you think you can make breakfast, considering you’re already delayed?”
Her fingers were about to break the egg in her hand as she froze. A hollow moan came from the pit of Apricot’s empty stomach. “I guess you’re right.” She moaned.
Apricot ran along the thoroughfare, worried about her lateness. She thought to herself as she weaved her way through the crowd that it was unusually busy. It appalled her to discover a barricade blocking all movement as the source of the commotion. “Not today!” Apricot shouted as she raced up to the fence. “Ah, come on!” As her hands found themselves on the rail, she shouted, “There has got to be another way through.”
“Eh, girl, turn around,” shouted a uniformed man. Cleanup crews bagged gory remains on the other side. Despite the slimy conditions, they did not seem to slow down.
Apricot thought, “This must be where the attack took place.”
“Didn’t you hear me?” The man shouted again. “Go around!” Redirecting her from where she came.
A sigh escaped her lips as she turned to face the morning street as if going against a stream. Apricot slipped through the unyielding people but made little headway. She knew of another rail line that wasn’t on her usual route. Despite being a few blocks away, the rail did not stop at the university, but it was close enough.
The station was in sight after a quick jog, but her heart dropped when she saw the line had boarded passengers and the room was getting limited. Apricot sprinted through the crowded street, bumping into people with sailing apologies. Before the doors closed, a young man held the doors open with one arm and reached out with the other.
With the cart’s speed increasing, Apricot ran faster. Her hand reached out for the man’s open palm. As he lunged forward, he gripped the door of the train. The young man lifted Apricot onto the threshold of the train’s closing door. Behind her, the doors shut with a hiss. “Hey there, almost missed your train.” He chuckled.
Apricot blushed. “Thanks to you, I didn’t.” His smirk was a little exaggerated. Then she noticed him looking her over. Her bust was the first thing he ogled before swinging back to her eyes. Her first thought was, “Oh great, he’s a pervert.”
He asked. “Got caught up with the detour, huh?”
Nodding, she said. “Mm-hm, so, did you?”
“Nah, but quite a few people complained about it.” While leaning against the support pole, he gripped the headrail. “It’s crowded in here this morning. It’s usually empty, that’s why I like it so much. With all these people, I feel uneasy.”
Apricot thought to herself, “That’s pretty rich coming from a pervert.” She shook her head. “Yeah, I’ve been there.” Apricot bit her tongue, not wanting to say more.
“What’s worse, I heard that Ginzu’s entire system had to be shut down for repairs. The cause: lightning during a robbery. What a load of shit. Have you ever seen a freak lightning storm endanger a rail system?” Apricot shrugged. “I haven’t either.” A sort of silence follows for a moment. Her mood had changed after being ogled; she was not ready to start a conversation after being paused. Huh, uncomfortable, sure, he knows all about it. Wrote the damn book on it. His shoulders slumped, and a sigh rolled from his lips. “So, what brought you out this morning?”
“Ah, I’m going to college. I study journalism.” Apricot had always been happy with the career she had chosen. The government and the media share a high level of trust that allows for a controlled relationship between the two. Passing the state journalist exam is difficult, especially for someone like Apricot, who is a foreigner.
Smirking, the guy said. “You’re a journalist, are you?” His posture softens. “You got a camera?” The question struck Apricot as odd. Her eyebrows squished together uncontrollably. “I figured a journalist would be interested in photography.” He replied. “I have this camera I’m trying to sell. Maybe you’d be interested in it.”
“No, I’m sorry. I’m not looking to try photography.” It was a lie, but she assumed the camera was stolen or broken.
Two arms were raised behind the young man’s head. “I ride the train almost every morning, so if you ever change your mind, come see me. Just letting you know my name is Cortez.” At first, Apricot thought he was attempting to flirt with her, but then Cortez waved. “Well, see you around OK.” Amid the mass of timbered bodies, he blended in unexpectedly.
Splashes of sweat streak Apricot’s rosy cheeks. During the jog to the university’s entrance courtyard, she sweated through her clothes. A large monitor screen displayed a government broadcast with the time-boxed in the upper right-hand corner: “10:04 AM”. This left Apricot feeling anxious. She hurried through the sparsely populated halls. The twists and turns made them seem like mazes to her. It was as if the designers had made the entire building as confusing and frustrating as possible. To intentionally cause hardship for students, let alone visitors. As if inside the vaults of each room are treasures hidden and there would-be robbers who would find themselves lost among the many turns, unable to escape.
“The detour. They will keep the door open.” Apricot thought to herself; a noble effort, but one that failed miserably to ease any tension. Ms. Akagi, her instructor, had already drawn the off-white paper shade in 1403B when she saw the door. The hand hovered just above the knob. Her lungs filled with a deep breath as she silently prayed to the almighty for divine luck. When she tried to twist the handle, she was met with resistance from metal fasteners that had locked. The doorknob jiggled with little give as she grunted again, hoping to will it to open.
As Apricot stepped back from the door, she lowered her head and placed both hands on the side of her cheeks. There was a tightness rising from her face, flowing down to her toes. Her breath was long and steady before she let it out with a sigh. “Late again.”
On a weekday, Blue Ash is like any other bustling city, a shadow of its real population. On a narrow lane, Apricot passed through people wearing a variety of fashions. The air was filled with the smell of barbecue over a charcoal grill. On the sidewalks were vendors who sold food from their carts. Shops lined the road offering a variety of items, from trinkets to clothing to consumer goods. Apricot had always seen this avenue as more of a hall of commerce.
One shop that caught Apricot’s eye was a boutique window selling the latest style spread across mechanical dolls. She admired the doll’s striking poses. Their realism seemed unreal. Almost, it is that small gap between the two that unsettled her. There was something in the eyes. They seemed to be alive, yet dead at the same time.
The sounds of programmed synths diverted her attention to an arcade. “I have little else to do.” She thought. After being enticed by the blinking neon lights, she enters the somewhat dingy “Game Palace”. A piped perfume filled the air inside. Apricot assumed it was an attempt to cover the humid heat generated by a mix of body sweat and cigarette smoke. A myriad of flashing arcade cabinets line the walls, each with an assortment of tunes that blend to make that classic sound. Apricot associated its pleasant ring with a good time despite the cacophony.
The flavor of one game was what she was looking for. A side-scrolling hack and slash game by Capnom called Queen Of Dragons. It’s a game Apricot did pretty well at. During her last visit, she had reached stage three on a single coin. Today, she was determined to go further.
A slight flicker appeared on the screens as the machines dimmed. “Crap, the power is going out again. Seriously.” A specter of breath appears in the open air from her mouth. In the frigid air, her skin tingled as if she had stepped into a deep freeze. The cold fades as quickly as it appeared, but not before causing all the systems to reset. It evoked her boredom as each began their boot sequences, causing her to whine. The appeal of battling pixilated monsters had passed.
After wandering the vitrines for a while, she came to an unfamiliar side street. Shops around here are relics from another era; dusty old places that were long forgotten. She walked past a hardware store, electronics boutique, a shady-looking pawnshop, second-hand shops, and a small market at Wiseman’s; a chain she had never heard of before.
There was a different type of populace walking the streets here. If the ones before were people without a care, these made her consider she may be in danger. In response to several unwelcome glances from men, Apricot decides it is better to head back onto more populated streets. A group of four guys kicking another man in the ribs welcomed her as she turned the corner. As each strike knocked his body from side to side, he barked out. Her wide eyes filled with horror as she shouted, “Stop! Stop!” When the guys turned to see her, she realized it had been a silly reflex.
She had now attracted the attention of four very hard-looking men. It was the tallest one who delivered the last kick. “Yeah, let’s get out of here. Make sure you have the rest of it, punk.” The men all walk towards Apricot, saying, “If not, get the hell out of town.” Apricot felt her throat tighten. The four walked by her without even a glance.
Her head turned downwards as she gazed at the man on the ground. As he spat blood, her eyes widened. It stunned Apricot to recognize him. That’s the man she met on the train. “Are you alright? Do I need to call the cops?” she said.
The man groaned as he stood to his feet. “Don’t do something stupid like that. Stay out of it. It has nothing to do with you, reporter.” He limped out of the back alley without looking at her. Despite her desire to go with him and make sure he was okay, Apricot knew it was not a good idea for her to do so. Being involved with people like that can leave you hurt, if not worse. Unlike most, Apricot valued what was unseen. Despite her desire to become a journalist, she had a pseudo-respect that some things should be left unsaid.
As Apricot was walking, she soon spotted a familiar sign: “Utopian Theaters.” It was now obvious where she was. Across the street was a small cafe called Hot Shots with an aromatic smell of brewed espresso. Upon entering, the aroma greeted Apricot. They embellished a pleasant chocolate wood décor with soft pastel green and red hues. There is some privacy with light music, but not so much that it drowns out your thoughts. She could not help but salivate as she walked up to the counter and inhaled the smell of fresh baked goods. “Hey girl, I thought you had school.” Apricot looked up at a bright blue gaze from Bonni Willox, one of her best friends from high school.
“Bonni!” Apricot chirped, reaching over the countertop to give a warm hug. “I did not know you worked here?”
“Yeah, I needed a part-time job. It turns out you can’t be a movie star without one.” She laughed. “So, why are you here?”
“I was late for class. Stupid detour halted my train,” Apricot grumbled.
Bonnie leaned forward and whispered, “I’ve got a story for you. I overheard the police talking about that. It upset the Okabe officials about not capturing the robber alive. Rather than calling them a robber, they called them a witch. I found that odd, given what had happened. A freak lightning storm is out of place, no? They killed how many people?”
Apricot smirked. “How’s that a story?” she asked. “That sounds more like a novel.”
“Heh, normally I agree with you, but the way they were talking about it did not sound like the usual upset about killing her, but… like they wanted her. They kept saying they had a deadline to bag them.” Bonni drummed her fingers against the polished wood of the counter. “I will tell you more about it later, but right now, is there anything I can get you?”
Apricot nods her head while placing a finger on her cheek. “How about a Vanilla latte with a dash of half-and-half.”
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