The Phoenix and the Crane (4000ish words of failed NaNo ’13)

/ I was poking about in my writing folder for the first time in ages and found something I meant to post but never did. So here, have last year’s failed NaNo attempt which a parallel universe me is probably still writing. It’s about the distant future and Japanese idol-assassins with powers. Don’t ask. These muses have been with me for a while, I just can’t stop myself from playing with old friends. This was actually the second attempt. There is a first, which has been laid to rest somewhere in my computer. *g* /

***

One moment, the late afternoon sky is there. The next, it is nowhere to be found. Someone has taken out the sector’s atmospheric projector, and the stars are peeking through the veil of deep space, tapping out their pinpricks of unfathomable code. Night has fallen over the Hephaestus sector, two hours ahead of schedule. Howls of confusion mingle with sighs of disappointment; there are tourists who have climbed five hundred steps to the top of a hill to watch a sunset. One by one, the street lamps come to life, but Tsurugi has already broken into a run. There is no time to be wasted, no time for his eyes to grow used to the sudden switch from broad daylight to dim artificial lighting. He speeds through the public park, easily avoiding collisions with other people, registering them as bright spots of awareness in his mind’s eye. Their presences guide him, as they are in turn guided by the light of the street lamps. People press against his mind like the tapping of leaves against a window pane, ever present, ever a shower of shards away.

Hephaestus’ atmospheric projector lies south of the park, beyond a small lake over which dangles a narrow wooden bridge. The wooden slats clack noisily against each other as the young man pounds across them, heedless of the dangerous wavelike motion the bridge has been set into by the momentum of his run. Here, there are no people, but it is a straightforward path to the other side of the lake, and hence no reason to slow down. A cybertronic crane takes flight, startled by the darkness and the commotion. Large wings beat strongly, lifting a lightweight body up into the air, hollow frame like hollow bones. As it swoops up towards the dark void above them, Tsurugi’s path runs parallel to the bird’s for two wing-beats, two heartbeats. Then, their trajectories fling them in separate directions.

He finds Seiichi lying on his back, with an arm flung over his eyes to shield them from sparks which rain down on him from the highest point of a pylon. Tsurugi finds himself balling up his fists in frustration, as though preparing to throw punch after punch at the man he cannot reach. The sparks would most definitely burn blisters into skin, but the figure which lies under their incessant patter and fizzles is unharmed by them. Tsurugi chooses a dangerous caress for his tone, rather than allow his emotions to bleed into his words. “A very good premature evening to you, senpai. Are you insane?”

“Not much more than I am usually perceived to be,” comes the reply in a leisurely drawl. “And therefore, by your standards: I am not.” Seiichi rolls over onto his side and sits up slowly. “What’s the hurry?”

In reply, Tsurugi shoots annoyance at him, a finely honed dart of a telepathic nature. It is a wordless message, but if there’d been words involved, they might have said get fucked, you fucking pyro.

“Ow! Got it… got it…” The dark-haired man shifts with a groan and gets to his feet. He shakes his head from side to side rapidly, but the temporary trauma to his senses will not be cleared that easily. With a sigh, he resigns himself to the mental fog. A flair for the theatrics has been in his blood since he’d first discovered, as a child, the effect that bawling at the top of his voice had on adults. Though he no longer begs for attention with excessive crying, the desire to be a little more dramatic than is necessary still remains, already a part of his scent. He crawls towards his kohai, rolls, drags his feet until he is safely out of the radius of the falling sparks.

Tsurugi helps him up. “Good job, Overkill-san. Although you could have cut the wires rather than blow something up again. A pity my ass isn’t exactly covered, since they’re expecting me to be looking out for you. Minimal damage to government property, they said. If damage has to be done, try to avoid the large, government-owned buildings.”

“Let me guess – they told you about the incident with the museum.”

Irritably, “Which one, exactly? The theft or the arson?”

Seiichi grins, absent-mindedly rubbing a fingertip along the stubble on his chin. The fog is starting to lift, and he’s tickled that some of his clearest memories at the moment involve bad behaviour. “Wasn’t there a third recorded incident during which both crimes went into a mating frenzy and thus – the perfect offspring was born?” He chewed on his lower lip thoughtfully. “I remember breaking into the Weston once, both setting it on fire and making off with a couple of vintage double ‘A’ batteries and a charger. It was glorious. Come to think of it, they added breaking and entering to the other charges.”

“The National Museum of Antique Power Sources? Umehara-san failed to mention; likely a deliberate choice. Nothing ever slips her mind, does it?”

“Oh, well,” Seiichi drawls, fluttering his eyelashes coyly. “Only the occasional dalliance with some dapper idol-saboteur or other.”

“You didn’t.”

“I might have,” Seiichi says in a grave voice, pushing his long fringe back from his face with a careless gesture. He sticks his tongue out to catch a falling spark as though it were a snowflake. “You’ll never find out.”

Tsurugi shrugs. “Neither do I care to know. Come on, we’re done here. The company is sending us a car. The bureau’s been paid off, but you never know if some grunt failed to get the memo.”

“Do you think the CyClone guys will get the job done?”

“What do you think? They’re all about as insane as you are. You’re but a lone wildcard; they are unpredictability to the power of five.”

Seiichi leans against his taller kohai, and they stagger as his weight unbalances them. “They’re missing something vital to any operation. I have you. To temper my, heh, explosive behaviour. You’re reliable. You’re my secret power. We’re not out there finishing the job ourselves because we’re too pretty to be spared.”

A rude, dismissive noise. “No one said that the reckless can’t be reliable too.” Then, “We’ve got to go.”

Their ride back to the dormitories is waiting at the extraction point. The driver has kept the engine running, and the unremarkable metallic grey vehicle with a completely ordinary local license panel is hovering above the skypath. As they step out onto the glowing amber strip, the lighting from below makes them look grim, more weary than their still-youthful faces will ever betray. Their driver for the day is a veteran, used to such work. The three hour trip back will be uneventful, silent but for the muted sound of city radio playing over the muted sounds of the city. Not a single road sped through, not a single illegal turn made. Seiichi plays a game on his phone, face expressionless as he taps away at the screen. Tsurugi senses some unease but makes no mention of it. He closes his eyes and leans back against the headrest, brows knitted, fingers interlaced in his lap. At least, the murmurs from the radio are of news reports and the like. He wouldn’t know what to do if one of their own songs came on.

Time flows on at a glacial pace, as it tends to default to when nothing is done to piece meaningful activities into the hours of the day. Sometime during the ride, Tsurugi drifts off to sleep, exhausted. He jerks back into full consciousness when Seiichi shakes him awake, alerted by the other’s sudden close proximity before he even feels the hand on his shoulder.

Back at the dorms, Tsurugi finds a message from Umehara waiting for him. Below the highly ornate lettering that states his room number (717), a dancing icon on the commpad display demands his attention. As the commpad is permanently mounted on his door, it makes the notification almost impossible to ignore. “I just read a bit of trivia about the mail icon, the other day. That’s an envelope,” he says, pointing to the icon. There is some attempt to rein in his enthusiasm on the subject. Beside him, Seiichi makes a soft ‘hm’. Tsurugi’s finger hovers over the screen, hesitant to open the message. “Centuries ago, thousands and thousands of years ago, people would write on paper and put those pieces of paper in other folded pieces of paper to carry across great distances. All to pass messages to each other. Weeks, even months, they took. They did not know the luxury of brevity. Long-windedness meant efficiency, lost messengers fell victim to barbaric punishments if they dared to turn up alive again, to the extent of beheadings. Imagine – paper, just like the stuff we blow our noses in.”

“And wipe our–“

“Yes. Thank you. The paper was a different kind, anyway. Less absorbent, so that the ink wouldn’t bleed. Oh– forget it. I don’t want to have to explain ink. It’s just… fascinating, how the daily lives of people from ages past end up in obscure trivia bibliodata files. Even bibliodata used to come in sheaves of paper bound together, in these things called books. Ah, sorry for the history lesson.”

Seiichi gently kicks the back of Tsurugi’s heel with the toe of his own shoe, smiling behind the other’s back. “It’s comforting to hear you talk. You drone on and on and it’s great. Your voice is the most potent lullaby for those of us gifted with the ability to fall asleep standing.”

“Only with you!” Tsurugi retorts. “You bring out the worst in me. Your presence inspires me to not shut up, sometimes.” His hand goes limp as Seiichi makes a grab his wrist, in an attempt to get him to open the message. Moments before the skin contact is made, Tsurugi has already sensed the intention and projected the intended result. He lets it happen. His knuckles brush against the screen and the animated envelope opens its flap to release a holodata window. Before he can pull his hand away, his senpai has grabbed his index finger and lifted it to the window for a scan of the print, and the window falls out of its locked position and into the other man’s waiting palm.

“This, too,” says Seiichi, brandishing the translucent holodata memo, “could go great distances if I wanted it to. Our agency is the only one which indulges in such… fanciful, yet redundant uses for technology. They can’t stick to messages that go direct to the commcube inbox. Instead, they present you with physical-form messages which can be easily hacked, extracted, moved around, stolen, lost. You’re a perfect fit for this place, enamoured by what the future may promise, yet inexplicably obsessed with nostalgia for a time long past.” He holds the memo out to Tsurugi. “That’s what I like about you.”

Tsurugi deftly raises his hand, and the window flies straight into it. “Says the one who used to break into museums to steal actual pieces of history.”

“That’s something else I like about you, Kudou. You call me out on my hypocrisy.”

Press play. Umehara’s voice comes through the palm-sized memo: “Get some rest, Kudou-san. I will have a word with you tomorrow. Bring Yamamoto.” Her tone is crisp, accent conspicuous in its absence (she speaks standard Earth dialect), though the emphasis she places on ‘a word’ is such that the automatically generated subtitles has bold, italicized text to reflect that particular variance in her inflection.

“That’s all?” Seiichi raises an eyebrow.

“That is, apparently, all. Unless she’s hidden a message within the message, meant for my eyes only. One which I cannot share, and will decipher only when left to the privacy of my own room.”

“She wouldn’t send anything lewd over a commlink. She isn’t the sort.”

Tsurugi rolls his eyes and smiles, a real one that touches the corner of his eyes. “No, she would be far more likely to embed a string of complains about you.” His lips are parted just enough to reveal a flash of teeth, a snaggletooth on the left side of his grin gives him a childish look about him. “To be quite honest, I think I would prefer that.”

“You brat,” Seiichi says fondly. “I’m going to go lie awake in bed. Have a good night’s rest.”

The air seems to change the moment Tsurugi shuts his room door. With a soft hiss, the fading sound of Seiichi’s footsteps is cut off abruptly. It is too quiet, and with no one to speak to, the thoughts just bounce around in his head, breaking up into even tinier fragments every time they collide until his mind is a slurry of dissonance. He flops onto his bed and stares into the blinking digits of the commcube, watching it dismiss seconds of his life, one flick-fade at a time.

Across from him, the empty bed seems adamant to remind him of an absence. Of layered absences, which accumulate, stacked right on top of one another, until, Tsurugi is sure, one day he’ll return to find crystallized loss resting on the sheets.

A corner of the holodata memo digs into his palm, reminding him that he’s still holding it. He sits up, and, gripping it tighter, presses the edge of the memo into his skin. Then, he relaxes his fingers and slowly, focuses his mind on the object, channelling his ability and causing it to rise a few inches into the air. Precision has never been his forte; even the agency’s instructors have trouble guiding his focus to narrow down, in order to resemble a sharp point more than it does a wide, uncontrolled beam. His telekinesis in its natural state is erratic, manageable in short bursts, completely useless when it comes to more ambitious endeavours. Successfully snatching the memo from Seiichi had been a fluke. The other man must have known that, as he’d been present for most of Tsurugi’s reflection sessions and a few of the training ones. The telepathy is not much better – emotions can be conveyed, shared with high degrees of accuracy, but the ability is still useless to the agency without the control to sustain it for longer periods of time. Even those who have studied him find it puzzling that his abilities seem to have manifested in a form that is mostly passive: functioning as two additional senses, rather than two additional weapons. Nonetheless, there is no doubt that they are useful tools with much potential that the agency is hoping to unlock and unleash.

Having the memo floating directly above his palm represents an achievement of sorts. Feeling hopeful, he attempts to manoeuvre it towards the commcube, but in direct opposition of all external forces which seek to control it (most of all, gravity), it hurtles towards the ceiling in a wide arc, rebounding off the white plaster with a small thunk.

“Argh!” The impossibly solid state of the memo taunts him, and he wishes that it had shattered into tiny bits of data when it had hit the ceiling. Unfortunately, only a converter will dissolve holodata, and the commcube is the only device in his room capable of such a task. He picks the memo up by hand and slams it into the data slot.

Just then, the panel to the right of the time display lights up. Impeccable timing.

Y.Seiichi: hey u awake

“I was about to ask you the same,” Tsurugi murmurs to himself, before bringing up the keyboard to type those very same words by way of a reply.

Y.Seiichi: i can’t sleep

aoi.ringo: You did mention that you were going to lie awake.

aoi.ringo: May I come up?

Y.Seiichi: sure I don’t see y not

Tsurugi has always believed that Seiichi falls into the category of trustworthy person, if only because he prefers to communicate via text, rather than spontaneous videolinks or calls, which Tsurugi finds intrusive and obnoxious. He decides that if neither of them is able to fall asleep, then he’ll just have to bring some help with him. There is a stash of vanilla liqueur under his bed, and he retrieves a bottle. He knows that Seiichi has a chilling unit hidden under his bed, and what better way to relax after a long day at work, than with a cold drink or six?

“We meet again,” announces Tsurugi, holding out the bottle of liqueur as soon as the door to 818 reveals the interior of the room and its owner standing in the doorway.

“A peace offering? When we didn’t part on unsatisfactory terms?” With his eyes squinted into a smile, Seiichi looks more feline than ever. He takes the bottle, sucks in a thin breath, impressed by the information on the label. “This stuff is old. Which must mean,” he says, making bright clinking sounds by tapping the bottle with his nails, “that this is glass, and not holodata.”

Tsurugi shrugs, shoulders twitching half-heartedly. He steps into the room and smacks the panel beside the doorway. The door slides shut with the same, familiar hiss. Seiichi’s room is a single, unlike his own with the twin beds and the gap that lies in between. Right now, he is much more at ease with himself, without the reminder that there should be someone else in room 717 with him, without the gap that seems like a chasm that feels like an ache. There are gaps in Seiichi’s room too, but with someone else around, they turn into cosy hiding places. Between the bed and the wall with the window, there is just enough space for a lanky young man. It is a tight fit for long limbs, but Tsurugi manages, crouching into a seated position until his tail-bone bumps against the carpeted floor and his knees are almost pressing up against his chest. He wraps his arms around his legs, locking them in a loop with his hands resting over his ankles.

“I shall assume that you aren’t going to be talking much,” says Seiichi, with the slightest hint of disappointment in his voice. But he sits down on the opposite side of his bed and reaches across it to ruffle the light brown mop of hair.

“I’ve run out of things to say.”

“Here I was hoping to have you talk me to sleep.” But Seiichi doesn’t mean it at all. He bends over his side of the bed and opens the chilling unit to find a space for the bottled gift. Holomatter bottles chill instantly, reacting to the surrounding temperature, but glass will take a while.

The agency’s dormitories are located on the uppermost layer of the Hephaestus sector. The eighth level is not eight storeys above ground level; it is eight storeys above the fifth layer of the colony, two of which lie below ground with tunnels carved deep under the surface of the planet’s skin. The employees of the agency effectively reside on one of the highest points on the colony. Even from his spot on the floor, Tsurugi sees only sky when he tilts his head up to look out of the window. Here in the inner city, the light pollution is so great that the night is a starless blanket, glowing faintly red, more oppressive than infinitely wide; an infinite weight that threatens to crush them. And yet, night is the only time when the projectors rest, when the artifice that is the planet’s sky is slowly dimmed, fading away, and a constructed sunset signals a surrender to what has been there since before universes came into existence – the void. Though humankind may have outshone the stars, no human will ever outlive them. Neither medical science nor unexplained phenomena will allow humans to become truly ancient, like the massive balls of glowing gas that have been lighting their way from planet to planet, home to home.

Seiichi presses a cold can against the back of his kohai’s neck, and Tsurugi squeaks.

“You were light years away!”

Tsurugi wriggles, tensing and relaxing his shoulders, arms flailing comically. The sudden cold against his skin has given him the sensation of having an itch, or a strange shudder trapped inside his ribcage, tickling the vertebrae of his spine.

“Here, have a beer for a start,” says Seiichi, cracking open the can and holding it out to him. “Your liqueur’s going to remain warm for a while. Don’t spill a single drop on the carpet. The company that owns the cleaning bots will probably skin you to replace them, and the idea of walking upon a layer of human skin is far too macabre for my tastes.”

“Well. That’s one obvious reason why we aren’t supposed to be drinking in here.” Tsurugi takes a large, noisy sip of his beer, wipes his lips with the back of his hand. “You can have the bottle to yourself,” he says and lets out a soft, rather melancholy sigh. “I thought I’d need the stuff, but all I really needed was to borrow this lovely view of yours.”

A huff of laughter. “I don’t care much for the view. Never have. I wish I could say, ‘you can keep it’.” Seiichi runs his hands through his dark hair, stretching out on his mattress. “Your windows look inwards, don’t they?”

Tsurugi nods, expression solemn. “You were right, you know. Earlier, I was light years away. Sometimes, I just feel the need to be, even without a star-field to stare into. The stars can be imagined, but nothing can replace the canvas that is the night sky. I miss life in the outer rim.”

Seiichi goes quiet, and he adjusts his hands behind his head, shifting such that more of the ceiling than the walls fall within his immediate periphery.

“In a way,” Tsurugi goes on, “life is much better, thanks to the agency. No more swindling, or starving. Yet nothing has changed. I still wonder about the person who expelled me from her body and promptly deemed me unfit to be her child. I wonder if she made the choice to abandon me, or if she had all the other choices taken from her.”

“You want to be wanted. That’s why you’re here. That’s why I’m here. We can’t get answers to the questions we want answered, so we end up grasping at answers to questions we never thought we’d be asking ourselves. You’ve never known that you wanted your face on a trading card, until you’ve seen high school kids screaming over it. You realize that they want you, more than anything else in the world. Then, the answer becomes a very empathetic yes – you do want your face on a trading card. And on the side of buildings, and on holoscreens. You want to speed across space to them in bits of holodata, to exist where they are. You want them to want you.”

“I do,” Tsurugi replies. “And I want them to gossip, to come up with wild rumours about my love life, with details more sordid than anything I could come up with myself. I’d want to be mobbed in the street, but that’s real old school.” He laughs.

Seiichi shakes his head. “You’re crazy.”

“You said it yourself. I want to be wanted. And that’s how badly I want to be wanted.”

“Go to sleep,” the older man murmurs, suddenly gone quiet. His voice is low over the hum of the air conditioning, thoughtful.

“Here?” Tsurugi is still curled up in the gap between the wall and the bed. “I might,” he says. “It makes me feel small, but safe.”

“We’ll see what your spine and your knees have to say tomorrow morning.”

“You mean later today.”
Seiichi swears, smacking the sheets with the heel of his palm. “Don’t you dare tell her this, but I’ve some sort of… implicit fear of Umehara. The thought of having to see her is keeping me awake.”

“Are you sure it isn’t the light fixture that’s directly above your head?”

“Hrm. Might be. Let’s turn it off.”

Somewhere in the heart of the agency known as Sidereal, a young lady peers into a large holopanel, scrolling through lines of data with a fingernail bitten short from impatience and anxiety. The panel is the only source of light, and its harsh glow sharpens the gentle lines of her face; she looks almost wicked despite her youthful features. The gleam in her eyes has always been there, like the edge of a moon peeking round the curve of an eclipse’s shadow. There is an ergonomically optimized chair behind her, but she thinks faster when standing. Her long, black hair is partially bundled up in a messy bun, held in place by a fork. Even she herself will be unable to tell you if the choice of accessory was deliberate or just the result of absent-minded improvisation.

“Unnatural…” Umehara mutters, scrolling frantically, bringing up more windows of data for comparison.

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