Each night in Sumida Ward, Tokyo’s glittering lights kept full dark at bay.
Akari Huang swiped through news feeds on her data sleeve, then tugged on her right shoe where it dug into her heel.
“Record note,” she said, activating voice recognition on her sleeve. “Pick up blister pads. End note.”
The elevator of her apartment building took its time ferrying other residents to their chosen floors. A sharp ding echoed through the empty lobby every five to fifteen seconds.
A newsreel featuring Minister Kobayashi flashed across her sleeve, which she only half paid attention to.
Another ding. More waiting.
She yawned and ruminated over her last client’s therapeutic treatment plan, debating whether she should recommend pharmaceutical intervention or stick to cognitive behavioral therapy. “Record note—”
The lobby went black.
She groaned. “Don’t record that. End note.”
Another blackout. Her neighborhood had been subjected to one just four days ago. She uselessly mashed the elevator call button repeatedly out of frustration, then tugged off her shoes, hooked a finger through the heel straps, turned on her sleeve’s flashlight, and headed for the stairwell.
“Terrific,” she said to herself, opening the door. “Six floors, let’s go.”
His ocular implants shifted to infrared. He looked at his own hand as he tucked himself into the corner of the sixth-floor door to the stairwell. His body radiated a righteous heat: illuminated, whole, human.
He stood stock-still as he waited, the murmur of distant conversation through apartment walls gently bubbling within the quiet. His nerves tingled in anticipation; he breathed deeply and deliberately to soothe them.
Six floors. The average sixth-floor resident took between sixty to ninety seconds to climb the stairwell at a steady pace. During a blackout, that increased by ten to thirty seconds—with emergency lights guiding the way.
This night’s darkness was complete. With emergency lights disconnected, Huang would rely entirely on the narrow illumination her sleeve could provide. The frustration of the blackout, the inconvenience of malfunctioning lights, and her typical post-workday exhaustion would leave her less likely to be vigilant about her surroundings.
Huang was on her home turf, but he was prepared.
She paused at the final step to the sixth-floor landing to stretch her calf muscles by gently tilting each heel toward the step below, careful to keep her hand on the railing in the dark. She swung her sleeve’s light toward the door, and pushed it open.
“Dinner pleeeease,” she huffed to herself, voice drowned out by the door automatically swinging shut behind her. She started digging through her bag to grab the manual key to her apartment. “And bed. Sleep for ten years.”
As Huang entered the hallway, he remained invisible in the darkness behind the stairwell door. Just before it clanged shut, he moved forward, stepping in time with her to mask the sound of his quiet footfalls.
In the center of her infrared form, a black cloud bloomed like a sudden bruise. Cold, sinister emptiness peeked through the false warmth of her body, revealing truth.
A truth he would quell.
Huang was about five feet from her apartment when he lunged forward.
She turned and swept her sleeve’s light in his direction, which his implants immediately compensated for.
She was far too slow. He punched her in the throat, reducing her voice to a choke before she could even try to shout. He grabbed her arm and twisted it behind her, then forced her knees to buckle and shoved her to the ground, knee on her spine, hand on the back of her head.
Sounds that weren’t quite language escaped her lips. He remained silent save the sound of his breath. Her liquid infrared form glimmered as she struggled, arms flailing, but she was small and he was not. Her hands batted at him uselessly. Tears and sweat matted her hair beneath his hand.
He kept his hand pressing down on her head as he reached for the large zip tie in his back pocket, his knee unforgiving as it dug into the heart of the black writhing mass that betrayed her true intent. It took only seconds to fasten the zip tie around her thin neck and pull it tight with a clamp.
The plastic burrowed into her flesh.
Within about ten seconds, she passed out.
He spent another five minutes kneeling on her body, muscles taut with the effort of ending her, palm aching against the handles of the clamp. Five minutes that stretched out so far, he could feel each second like hot wax dripping on his skin.
Bit by bit, the darkness in the center of Huang faded.
Not far from Kyu-Yasuda Teien, on the shore of the Sumida River, sakura petals floated toward the ground along whimsical paths, carried by soft currents of air. One petal drifted down, its destination ever-changing, until it came to rest on a black...