Blue Ash Crisis (2018/2019), Fiction, Novels

Blue Ash Crisis: Chapter 4

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Chapter 4

Leisure Time Of A Daredevil Journalist

Apricot tossed and shifted all night long in her bed, her eyes closed tightly to avoid all of those muffled whispers crawling through her head. A handful of voices are convincing her the frightening tones don’t come from within her head, but from all corners of her bedroom, from under the floorboards, and from the edges of sanity. A hanging evil now enclosed her room, which is no longer connected to her house. The twilight shadows seemed to conceal creatures peering at her. Through subtle glances, she found herself convinced they were there.

Her stomach turned over in terror as the slithering fingers grip her sheets, tracing lines on her legs. Shadows of an eternal sunken pit haunt her dreams. An old ruined city rose from the pit, its construction distorted; doors without stairs, and openings in walls where they should not be, rods hanging off the faces of architectures and looming towers flapping toward the ground. Within that dark vortex, the demonic world swirled. The countless creatures who roamed in it gaze back at her, looking from a nature very different from her own. As they lay in the shadows, they call out to a king and whisper tales about when they will cross over. She could feel their eyes cutting deep into her soul as she sat in her desolate room alone. There was something deep inside her telling her the dreams were just beyond the looking glass.

“Quite the daredevil, aren’t we, Apricot?” Miss Akagi’s roar rang out of the lecture hall, rattling Apricot to the bone. The other students could hear every word outside the room, she supposed. Her instructor’s stern finger wagged like a bludgeoning rod as her brown eyes shifted with the motion of her fingers. “You are to report the current events, my dear, not become part of one.” She straightened her posture, gripped Apricot’s paper, adjusted her glasses, and stopped her tongue-lashing.

As the stabbing silence continued, Apricot pulled her nails into her thigh. Miss Akagi continued, exhaling exaggeratedly, “However, I must commend your piece. It is rather enchanting.” She turned her attention to Apricot, walking from her podium. “If it weren’t for the strike you received, the story seems like a novel. Entering a crime scene unauthorized is a very serious charge, Missy.” She shook her head in defeat as Miss Akagi uttered the scalding words. “I should expel you,” Apricot choked on the words. “But rarely do we have anybody so daring? I will stand for it this time!” She emphasized, raising her eyebrows. “Fortunately for you, the Ministry has allowed me to decide how harshly we should punish you for this misbehavior. Don’t do it again or you will lose your state license and have to find a job in the private sector.”

“Yes, mam.” Apricot stammered, ashamed.

“Good. Let’s talk about your paper.” Apricot glanced up with a calm look on her face. She knew she had averted disaster. “Considering you are a junior journalist, it’s quite thrilling. It would be dishonorable to let it go to waste. Wouldn’t it miss Apricot? I could present your story before an actual journal, could I not?”

“A journal!” Apricot jumped. “Really? A real journal, like a state paper.”

Her reply made Akagi smirk. “Hm no,” she replied with a slight chuckle at the right time to appear snobby. “Neither a state paper nor an undergraduate journal. Such publicity belongs to independent publications. A weekly. Are you willing to sell it to me? Perhaps I can publish it for you.”

“Sell you my story?” she asked, awestruck. “I would love to.”

“Good, good,” Akagi sang as she flipped through the pages. “Keep it up and you may pass Apricot, that is, if you can remember to come to class.”

“Yes, Mam.” She nodded with a lively blush covering her cheeks.

As the city bustled with high-frequency jingles and flashing holograms from advertisements, the center is washed in entertainment. People were bustling along the streets of the downtown metroplex as Apricot and her friends walked. She was swept away by the day’s excitement. The highlights of the visit included window shopping through the side shops, stopping for delicious grilled chicken skewers at an outdoor stand called Oorudo Chiifu, and a fun cart racing session.

During Apricot’s ride up a large glass elevator, her friend’s conversation faded as she overlooked the city. Locals refer to it as “The Big Tower”, since it is the largest elevator in Blue Ash. The Big Tower was home to thousands of businesses and employed about two-thirds of the city’s population. The tower was not just where business took place; it was where Okabe ran most of the country’s government as well.

The Big Tower’s panorama normally marveled Apricot. This day, however, it seemed like a labyrinth. There was something strange about the city that made her nervous. That sprawl of metal and concrete timbers became a shadowland of unimaginable dangers. She could not help but wonder if something was waiting for her in that modern jungle, some kind of primitive horror, or maybe something so alien she could never understand. A totally frightening thought. As an instinctive reaction, she involuntarily peeled away at her fingernails. Her teeth ripped at the ends, causing jagged edges to appear from unevenly split nibbles.

For the sake of her well-kept nails, she couldn’t afford to think of the unimaginable horrors that waited in the hidden places. Her eyes fell on Solenne, a friend she had known for a long time. In her cute blue sleeveless hoodie with white stripes, she looked adorable. Under her hoodie is a black shirt with an obscured white logo. Even though she wouldn’t admit it to Solenne, Apricot always envied her fashion. Although Solenne was petite, Apricot found it hard to believe she was an officer. The way her boyfriend, an Arslanian immigrant from the county of Stezyl, tucked her into his muscular arms brought to mind a doll. His name was Arjun, and his body matched that of his namesake, the great bear.

Apricot came to understand that Stezyl had a terrible authoritarian regime in place. Because of all the horrible stories about Arjun’s childhood and all the reading she had done on the topic, the impression she had of the place was wanting to put it mildly. Likewise, it appeared as though things were turning the same way for her own home of Okabe. Her heart longed to return to Castor. The homeland of her soul.

Even so, her gaze turned back toward the street as the window called to her. “The city below, so far away.” Apricot pondered.

“What do you think, Apricot?” Solenne asked, jarring her from her trance.

It is unclear what the conversation is about or how to respond without letting everyone know she wasn’t even paying attention. In the end, she told it straightforward. “It’s scary.” She mumbled.

Machi scrunches her face in confusion. “Huh?” she barked. “How is it scary?”

“It’s not that… it’s that we are high up. Just imagine what it would be like if we had a bird fly into the tube. I bet the air pressure would take us out and we would fall to our deaths.” Apricot turned from the glass to see Arjan smirking and Solenne’s expression filled with concern.

“Apricot, you’re sick in the head? Who talks like that?” Machi shook her head in disapproval.

“O’, sorry I….” Apricot rubbed her arm, turning away from Machi, who shot her an iconic stabbing glare.

“Don’t worry, I was feeling ze same. I always do on zese thing. It’s… mile up the least, right?” Arjun’s accent was thick. Whenever there was a Th in a word, he always pronounced it as Ze. Besides those, he often used poor verb conjugations. Arjun may lack a good grasp of the Uchellian language, but that could be easily forgiven.

“The distance isn’t even half a mile!” Machi commented, slamming her arms to the side. “Stop talking crazy! I don’t need to think about stuff like this.” Apricot snickered. Arjun and Solenne soon joined, which completely stunned Machi. “You’re all horrible people.”

In the dark alleyway, the clicking of a man’s steps could be heard. “Damn it, they can’t keep doing this.” He said. Apricot jolted as Machi wrapped around her arm. Silently, the audience was watching the large silver screen with a semi-holographic display. As she ate her popcorn, she tried not to disturb anyone with its jarring crunch. What was the point of giving out popcorn in the theaters anyway, Apricot wonders? Popcorn was one of the noisiest snacks you can eat. The crinkle of candy wrappers was also audible. It was the quietest thing—food—and yet they find the loudest ones. It was as if they wanted you to interrupt the movie so they would have to watch it again. A shot of the back of the man showing a long dark alleyway drew her back into the movie as the screen panned away from the man. During his approach from the opposite side, shadows obscured him. A close-up of his shoes was shown.

Apricot winced, assuming that a jump scare was about to occur. She glanced at Machi, whose face appeared milky white in the screen’s light; eyes stuck to the image. It was obvious from how Machi’s nails buried into her arm.

“T-Tobei? Is it you?” the young man stuttered. As the young man walked in the dark, the man stopped. “Thank God, Tobei.”

Tobei’s grinning face emerged from the darkness into the light to reveal long, tapeworm-like eyes and his mouth opens just as the man screams, latching onto his face while he looks at it.

At that moment, Machi shrieked so loud that her scream overshadowed the screen, and the entire room joined in. In a panic, the hair on Apricot’s back stood on end. When Machi realized what she’d done, she shut up. Her face fell into a pout as she curled up into her chair. Apricot noticed the brief event painted her face with a rosy pink hue. “Sorry,” Machi mumbled. Apricot stifled her giggle as she petted her palm.

Over the din of electronic chatter, Arjan teased, “Gee, you scare me to death, Machi. That little scream of you make movie terrifying.” He pressed his foot against a machine that resembled the nose of a fighter jet and rested his arms on its board.

While piloting the digital plane, Machi glanced over her shoulder. “I wasn’t scared, it was just… that thing looked so strange.”

Arjun snickered. “Zeat, what scared is?”

The screen flashed as a group of rockets was fired into a plane, burning it down. Across the arcade system, a man shouted, “Ah, damn it!” which caused a sly smile to spread across Machi’s face.

“Alright, Machi!” Apricot cheered. Both Solenne and her are watching Machi’s expert maneuvers over her back.

Arjan spat a quick burst of air. “Zeink you hot Machi? Bet ya can’t beat me.” Arjan challenged.

“Arjan, she is enjoying her game. Let her be.” Solenne shushed Arjan, causing him to roll his eyes. His slack arms were placed behind his head as he slumped over the arcade machine.

Machi laughed modestly. “If I did, you would be an embarrassment to the military. Also, I wouldn’t feel safe knowing they let in people who can’t even compete in arcade games.” As Machi’s childish retort made Solenne sigh.

“Those two,” Apricot said under her breath.

“You’d think by now they’d get used to each other.” Solenne agreed. She continues, “I was busy filing reports all week. It’s like this city has gone nuts!”

“You don’t say?” Apricot inquired, a hint of curiosity settling in the back of her mind.

“Yeah, my poor baby has been coming home late much night this week. Zeomeday she doesn’t even get home.” Arjan mused, grabbing Solenne by the waist and kissing her cheek. “Leaves me lonely.”

Solenne nodded. “It’s true. Although I may not discuss it, there are murders everywhere. In addition, there was that bank robbery the other day, but you know all about that already.” Apricot felt her cheeks warm. As Solenne paused, her eyes became smaller and softer at the same time. “Apricot, this isn’t something I told you. It’s off the record.”

“I don’t understand why you’re picking me out.” Solenne narrowed her eyes at Apricot. “Okay, fine, I won’t write an article about it.”

Solenne went on. “Something happened that disturbed me. We got a report this morning about a singer who had her face chewed off by her fans backstage. The photos looked terrible, and the report wasn’t clear at all. It’s as if some sort of evil force was controlling them. We have the kids in custody, and they are acting like wild animals. They rumored it in my department that it is some Arslan biological or something like that.”

Apricot’s stomach clenched with dread upon hearing that information. An unidentifiable voice grunted, “Someone chews your face off.”

“Is it just me who heard that?” she thought. “That’s horrible.” She mumbled to herself.

“You said it. It’s unlikely that I’ll sleep tonight. As if the movie wasn’t bad enough, now you are telling us that people are being poisoned to eat each other? Thank you, Solenne.” Machi grumbled.

Arjun shook his head. “Don’t worry, zeis is just war hysteria. Biologicals cannot be released here by Aslana. It would be terrible weapon, anyway.”

“The war between Aslana and Castor is causing issues even in Uchella,” Apricot said, looking down at her feet on the red carpet of the stained arcade floor.

“That reminds me. Apricot, consider changing your route back home.” Solenne watches Apricot in concern. She further said, “If you ever need a ride home, call me or Arjan and we’ll get you.”

“Why do you say that?” Apricot chuckled, trying to cover up the growing sense of dread.

As Arjan shrugged, he looked away. “You listen, all right.”

“All right. I will be sure to.” Apricot said.

“Well, did you see anything or hear anything last, Ventaro?” Solenne asked.

She swallowed a lump. It was Ventaro that she encountered that weird thing. “Ah, no, why do you ask?”

Apricot saw the fear well up in her eyes as Solenne’s words left her mouth. “They found some bodies after people reported… things.” Something like boiling black sludge, tarring her inside. The firmly clasped arms of Solenne wrapped around Apricot as she hugged her. “My heart goes out to you. I know how hard that robbery was on you. Like I said. Just call us whenever you need a ride.”

Through the throng of people at arcade machines, Apricot looked beyond Solenne. There was a shadow that stood in the dark behind the people she watched pass. She saw it cross the wall. A flowing cloak traversed alongside its twin horns while they bent in various directions. “Sure,” Apricot replied as the shadow passed by, disappearing into the crowd.

“Has anyone else noticed that it is hot in here?” asked Machi as she stepped out of the machine’s cockpit.

Arjun nodded. “Zeought I was zee only zeinking that.”

The thing went missing, gone. It had passed her by this time. Her guess was that it was because of the crowd. It’s observing her for sure. Her heart pounded. “Well, it’s getting late,” she said. “I should probably head home. Thank you so much for the fun day out.” Apricot replied.

“Sure, need a ride home?” Arjun asked.

Apricot can’t look away from the shadows. “Nah, I shouldn’t have any problems walking home. The train station isn’t too far away.”

Apricot hollered, “Mom, Dad, I’m home,” as she kicked off a pair of red and white sneakers. She ran up the stairs and closed the door behind her. She found sanctuary in her bedroom. As she sat at her desk, she flipped open her laptop. “I’d like to learn more about these murders now. Solenne, you’ve got me curious.”

The government has restricted or removed most of the items. The forums seemed to be manually censored in real-time. They immediately edited topics on the subject, leaving them blank or removed by the user who posted them. Suddenly, her attention is caught by her phone. Grabbing the black slab, Apricot flicks it with her finger to reveal a message from Bonni. “Hey, girl, wanna meet up at the park?” she asked. “I want to show you something.”

Visiting the park at such a late hour filled Apricot with dread; however, if Bonni were to discover she was with her friends earlier, it might hurt her. She texted back, “Sure” against her better judgment.

The park is a shadowed nightmare. Apricot examined every tree lit by artificial light. Every sound made her twitch until she spotted Bonni on a distant bench. “Bonni,” Apricot called out as she approached her. “I’m so happy to see you. At night, the playground is spooky.”

A magazine rested on Bonni’s lap as she crossed her legs. With Bonni’s fingers splayed over the cover, Apricot could not make out the image, but she could make out the title, Eerie Truths Monthly. After the events last week, she wasn’t sure whether to roll her eyes. “It’s nice to have a seat. Since the train is out, it takes a little longer to get to this side of town.”

“I know what you mean. It can be a real pain. I would have shown up at your place, but I couldn’t figure out how to get there, so I texted you instead.” Bonni lifted the magazine. “I want to show you this,” she gestures to the pages, wagging in her hands. “I know, I know, this is a weird magazine, but,” she chirped when she reached the folded page in her hands. “This is what I was talking about.”

Photos taken with low-resolution cameras are littered across the page. One picture shows something jumping off a building. Apricot realized the picture was fabricated. “Thank you, Bonni,” she replied. One finger interrupted her.

“Wait, before you say anything,” Bonni interjected. High-resolution photos show a silhouette that closely resembles the reaper she saw floating over the city. It made her heart stop. “See what I mean. That is not normal. I see this all the time.” Apricot clutches her mouth tightly. “He’s called Claw Fingers.” Her mind raced for what to say. There was no way she could tell Bonni that she had seen that creature. “The report says he offers people power for servitude.”

“These stories, Bonni. When did these stories start?” Apricot asked in a cute tone, hoping to hide the horror engulfing her.

“Only a few months. I’ve read this magazine for years, and it got its first mention two months ago. Even creepier is the string of murders that happened last week.” Bonni turned the page to reveal a bent corner. She unfolded it to reveal the header, “The Ikijoji Street Murderer.”

“Bonni!” Apricot shouted, standing from the bench. “Stop it!” She snapped, scowling at a wide-eyed Bonni. “You need to stop reading fantasy stories. Don’t include me in this thing if you want to believe it.” She felt her heart sink as her fear seized her.

As she folds the magazine, Bonni lowers her gaze. A sullen tone rose in her voice as she declared, “I thought you would be interested in this stuff as well.”

“It terrifies me,” Apricot croaked, folding her arms. “I walk down there almost every night, and I don’t want to hear about someone butchering people around there.” Apricot took a few deep breaths. “My head is spinning enough already with school and work.” She explained. “I don’t need to worry about some imaginary paranormal activity.”

Silence reigns. A faint smile flares up on Bonni’s face. “Clearly, this all has you scared. It’s okay, Api, I will not bother you anymore. If you would like to discuss imaginary spooks, I am always ready to listen.”

“Ah, sure Bonbon. I guess we’ll catch up later.” Apricot muttered. “I apologize, but you’re right. This is frightening.” A shallow hug from Bonni followed. “I don’t like that.” Bonni nodded.

A smirk spreads across Bonni’s face. “I have something to tell you before I leave. I heard more from the SDP police. The lady from the other day. There was some kind of spectral anomaly, causing bullets to bounce off her. They had not seen anything like it before.” Her blood froze. “That’s why they had that machine at their disposal. They needed a large projectile to eliminate whatever was protecting her. It may seem silly to listen in on their conversations so intently, but Apricot, they are hiding something. I just thought you should know.”

“Why me?“ Apricot asked.

“I’m not sure. I just have a feeling. Maybe it’s intuition. Maybe it’s superstition.” Bonni softly said. “Well, it is really late. We should leave before we look suspicious. The guard may think we’re doing something wrong.”

Apricot waved as the two started down the dark park road in separate directions. She fixed her eyes on the starless sky. “This is all getting real. Too real,” she thought to herself, an eerie feeling that she was being followed taking over her.

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