Chie sat on the couch and held Hayden in her lap. He was exhausted from all the emotional trauma and had fallen into a deep sleep. She clenched her hands into fists. She was incensed at how uncaring and insensitive Ken could be to Hayden, his own son. But it was only thirty minutes. They'd start family counseling and he would start individual counseling for his... addiction. There, she'd said the word: addiction. She'd insist on the counseling. It was the only effective therapy. She knew from first-hand experience. Then the healing could start.
Holding her phone in one hand, she reached over her shoulder and massaged her shoulder blades. They were sure getting sore all of a sudden. Mas sat next to her and faced the living room window that looked out onto the street below.
Chie watched Ken's blurry shadow playing around in the sphere. Well, that's what it was: playing. Still, the technology that could make the sphere was fascinating. Whenever Ken ran into the walls, they flexed, and when he ran, the inner sphere spun with him, but the outer one stayed anchored to the platform on the floor.
Oh shit! Ken fell down on the floor and rolled around. He kicked the zipper and it tore open in a few places.
Then he got up. She heard his muffled voice talking to someone. All of a sudden he yelled out and collapsed onto his knees. Oh my God! She jumped up from the couch, almost dropping Hayden on the floor.
Mas snorted, got up from the couch, and limped around the sphere over to the window, and looked out into the dim twilight. "Hey, I think someone's on top of the church roof across the street," he said. "And I just saw two police officers cross the intersection. Is this area safe?"
"Three blocks away from BART. About what you'd expect." She stared at Ken's figure and her fingers clawed at her jeans. Who is he talking to? Is it that arrogant kappa? Or Aika?
"True, and this complex looks run-down too." Mas picked at the paint peeling off of the window sill. "How about downstairs in the back? I noticed a lot of people going back there. May be an illegal grow operation."
"Oh, I don't know." She watched Ken and then shook her head. I can't help him. If I'm so worried, I might as well join him. And hell if I'm going to do that. Real life is more important. "Mas, come back and sit with us." She patted the cushion next to her.
Mas sat down and he immediately started shaking his leg. Ken's shadow caught his eye. Well, there's wasn't much else to look at in the barebones apartment except for Ken playing his stupid game. Why are we even indulging him? On Saturday, Audrey and I argued about the extra hours I was putting in, but I didn't move out.
He looked down and saw Chie's phone lying at her feet on the carpet. The screen was on and apps were flickering. Some were typing by themselves. The air around it shimmered with a rainbow of colors like heat radiating from the asphalt roadway. He caught a whiff of the acrid smell of sparking wires. She must've dropped it when she stood up. Mas pointed at the phone. "Look's like your phone's—"
She reached for it.
He grabbed her arm. "Don't—"
She picked it up. "Ow!" she dropped it, and shook her hand.
"Are you okay?" He took her hand in his and spread her fingers out. "They're red." Wait a minute. He drew her hand closer to his face. "What are the hell are those?" Black threads wriggled within the creases of her palm.
"What?" she said.
"Right there, black lines," he said as he gently turned her palm to her. It was still red, but there were no black lines. "Ha, maybe just my imagination." He scratched his head. "I'll get some ice." He started to get up.
"No, it's fine." She laid Hayden's head back in her lap.
"Are you sure?"
"Looks like your phone's been hacked," he said as he sat back down.
"Seems like it's been happening to a lot of people we know... Ken's parents, my mom..." She reached behind and scratched both sides of her back. "Geez, does this place have fleas?"
Her shoulders seemed larger, more muscular than he remembered. Almost like the MMA fighter, Hiroko Tsugimoto. He liked her. She had bulked up in order to get into middleweight, so she was on the small side for her weight category. But she could slip in an almost unbreakable leg armbar.
Chie had bags under her eyes, her hair was oily, and she smelled, well, sour and her body had that air of stale sweat, like she'd been working out. Ken's stupid, obsessive behavior was taking its toll on her. "You need to rest instead of watching that idiot," Mas said.
She bowed her head and looked down at Hayden sleeping in her lap.
Fuck, what a heel I am. Why do I always blurt things out? "Why don't you take a nap? I'll watch out for Ken."
"Really I'm fine." Tiny beads of sweat dotted her forehead. She plucked at the collar of her t-shirt.
"You could be catching a cold." He couldn't help but stare at her chest. No, she didn't get a boob job. That wasn't like her at all. But it was unmistakeable. Her whole upper body was amazing. Like Hiroko. No, even more so. It would be rude to say something, but why hadn't he noticed before? Had he just not paid any attention? Of course, he'd been distracted from the moment he arrived here at the apartment. Oh, it's some kind of inflammation! I need to get her to the emergency room. "Chie, look at your chest, it's—"
The front door burst open. Three SWAT team members in body armor and semiautomatic rifles swarmed into the room. Tactical lights streaming out from under the rifle barrels blinded Chie and Mas.
"Everyone, down on the floor!"
Chie rolled onto the floor and covered Hayden with her arms and chest. Hayden woke up and whimpered.
Mas laid his arms across both Chie and Hayden's shoulders and heads. Her back muscles throbbed like Boa constrictors rippling under her skin and rocked his cast up and down.
"Hands on your head!"
Ken's entire body trembled. He seethed at Yuri who stood stock-still in her trance. What the hell was going on? Was becoming her student some kind of con game to get me to give her my passcode? And what did she mean about Chie, Hayden and Mas possibly dying if I didn't do what she said? That's a threat if I ever heard one. She must be a cracker? How could Webuit let a cracker into their midst? And did she really hack mine and Chie's phones?
Then, all over her right sleeve, threads here and there started turning gray and then black. Pinpoints of light sparkled amongst the threads like stars in a nebula. Then, the black threads grew and spread across the skin of her hand. Blisters rose and then burst in a flash of red light. Wriggling like sentient animals, the threads snaked their way though the shoulder fabric, burrowed into the unblemished flesh of her neck and then her cheek. They finally spread like the lines of an infection into her right eye, squirming in its socket like anemone tentacles.
She awoke from her trance. "Now attack me, kodan position."
For a moment, he was speechless and couldn't peel his eyes away from her face and arm, but then he remembered what she had said mere moments ago. "Are you threatening me?"
"I'm defenseless." Her arms hung loosely at her sides. "We're only trying to help."
"I don't get it. How is attacking you going to help? And how do I even know what you're saying is true?"
She took a deep breath in. "See?" She raised her hand palm up in the air and his apartment was displayed. Chie, Hayden, and Mas were face-down on the floor and a three-member SWAT team was pointing their semiautomatic weapons down at them. Ken was standing in the middle of the sphere. The SWAT team hadn't seen him. "I swatted your apartment."
He loosened the helmet strap. I've got to get back!
"Don't! If you make any sudden movement inside the sphere, the SWAT team will be caught off guard and anything could happen." She stretched her one arm out to him. "Come, attack me! If you kill me, an order saying that it was a mistake will be broadcasted to the entire SWAT team."
Nothing made sense. First, she swatted my family and now she wants to save them? "It must be some elaborate hoax. It's got to be." He dropped his fingers from the strap and gripped his wakizashi with both hands.
"Do you really want to take that chance?" she said.
He lifted his wakizashi up to his waist and held its tip up, pointing at Yuri. His entire body started to shake. "It's only a game. I—I'll just stand here and it'll be over."
Yuri's sleeve and hand were completely black and sparkling like the stars in the night sky.
"I'll strike you down." Yuri said and with her left hand grasped the hilt of her wakizashi in a reverse grip. "And your body falling in the sphere will catch the police off guard and they will spray bullets all over the apartment."
From her prone position, Chie saw the roof of the church across the street.
"Zoom in on that," said a smooth contralto voice from her phone lying three feet away.
"Bird's Eye View skill, activate zoom," Chie said without questioning. She didn't have time to think, only react.
Magnified to one hundred times, her eyes caught the glint of sunlight glancing off of the lens of a mounted scope. A skinny red laser beam pierced through the living room window and wandered to and fro around the apartment, but it couldn't penetrate the sphere.
Then, the realization hit Chie like a fist to the jaw: the police and the veiled threat of the Empress's diplomatic envoy. But how could this be happening? Detective Rostov registered their address as a potential swatting threat—that is, their home, which was in Berkeley.
"Clear the bedroom," the SWAT team leader yelled to his teammate at the end of the line. He peeled off from the group and with his rifle pointed forward walked in a crouch position cautiously down the hallway.
Tears streamed down Ken's face. "I don't get it. What the hell do you have to gain? Why are you doing this?" His hands were still weak and they shook as he raised his wakizashi high above his head. He knew he had to do it. Because if it wasn't a hoax and if Yuri wasn't lying, then the risk to his family and his best friend was too great. Besides, he wasn't afraid of mere physical pain. It wasn't like he could die in a game, right? But then, why was he crying?
He let out a yell from the depths of his diaphragm and rushed her with all the speed he could muster.
Chie watched Ken raise his bokken high over his head and he started running inside the sphere.
"No!" Chie said. Get down, Ken! Time slowed.
The SWAT team saw his moving shadow and swung their rifles around to bear on him.
In a head-splitting pain, her back muscles burst open; black wings interlaced with her own bleached white bones like katanas snapped open, scraping the ceiling, and she lunged forward.
One of the bone katanas sliced clean through Mas's biceps. "Fuck!" Blood soaked into his long-sleeve shirt. "What the fuck's that?" Mas said, staring at Chie's black wings. From under the sleeve of her t-shirt, hundreds of black threads sparkling with glitter snaked down her arm, across the carpet, and into her phone. All along her arm, pustules rose and burst, leaking yellow pus and blood onto the carpet.
He hugged a sobbing Hayden to his chest, hiding Hayden's eyes in his strong arms.
Ken tore through the weakened zipper, holding his bokken high in the air above the two SWAT team members.
Before they could fire, one of her black wings snatched both of them and then wrapped them up. They started firing. Even at point blank range, no bullets shot through her wings. Only the dull thuds of bullets echoed off of the apartment walls. She sniffed the invigorating smell of gunpowder smoke and then squeezed her wing as though wringing a wet towel. The satisfying sound of cracking bones like walnut shells resounded throughout the apartment before they screamed.
Her wing dropped the twisted carcasses and lashed out at the SWAT teammate right before his rifle muzzle peeked around the corner of the hallway. Her wing's razor-sharp blades slashed through his armor and lacerated his body in horizontal stripes from head to toe. His head fell onto the floor and rolled to a rest against the wall.
A red dot flashed on Ken's head. She flexed her wings propelling her body to tackle Ken. Her short hair vibrated like cicada and her long strong arms reached out for Ken, her tank, her love. Pulling him in and hugging him, she rested her head on his chest. With his beautiful heart beating in her ear, she cradled him in her wings.
But then he struck down with his bokken hard on top of her wing and his head popped up above her wing's topmost ridge.
In a loud cacophony of clashing cymbals, the window shattered.
Ken collapsed onto the floor.
Chie fell down onto her knees at his side and then slumped onto his chest. Blood pooled under his head, soaking into the carpet.
"No!" She seized his head in both of her hands and wailed like the guttural cawing of hundreds of dying crows. It should be me.
- San Francisco Bay Area
- Quantum Katana
Tech writer by day / Dungeon master by night
Be immersed in my TechnoPhantasia stories and strike down charging oni with your blood-splattered digital katana.
Discord: quantum katana#8807 (hanging out on the LitRPG Forum and GameLit Forum servers)