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The Tower Where the Neon Ends
Niao stalked past the flashing signs that advertised girls or gambling, her lithe form flowing like liquid through the throng of losers and loiterers. Addicts of some form or another. Her plain gray hoodie shadowed her face from the curious, and when she slid between bystanders, she never touched. They never even felt the slip of air, that ghostly pressure that alerts you when someone is near. She could have robbed them blind if she had wanted.
Just before the end of the street, she saw Jonah's lanky frame standing in a dim alley. He was holding a DigiTag up to the far wall, scrolling through scripts and color palettes. His back turned to her, he stopped at a gunmetal and aqua Wildstyle, the letters "CTC" five foot high spanning corner-to-corner. Niao watched him contemplate the choice before pressing the tag button, painting their signature across the wall. Cross-Tracks Creepers. The corners of her lips ticked upward.
"I like it," she called out as he jumped and whirled to face her. His long, shaggy hair obscured the momentary fright in his golden hazel eyes.
"Oh! Thank god it's you. What did you call me here for anyway?"
"Just us? You didn't want to call Han and Abhi?"
"No." Niao looked at the ground when she replied. She shifted her backpack to a more comfortable spot on her shoulder.
"They're gonna be pissed we left them out," he chuckled, "at least for a little while. Where did you have in mind?"
A smile spread slowly on her face. "We're actually almost there. The big one. At the end of the street."
"Androica Tower?" Jonah's mouth froze open for a second. "They might be pissed for a longer while."
"Yeah, but this is special. It can only be you." She bit her lip in apprehension of his answer.
Jonah hesitated, arching a curious eyebrow before replying. "Okay. Sure. Just us."
She knew her request was odd, but Jonah's face remained stoic. His natural ease calmed her. Niao realized she had been standing on her tip-toes, and allowed herself to relax into a more casual stance. Jonah had been the one who approached her. Had led her into the world of creeping. Urban exploration. Abandoned buildings, some full of secrets, some empty, but never boring.
Her life, as a whole, had never been boring. However, it had rarely been happy. Jonah had introduced her to the rush of creeping, as well as his crew of fellow explorers. They were her first real friends. But despite the newly found thrills and kinship, there was something gnawing at Niao. Something she ached to share with someone. And she had chosen Jonah.
Together they began walking towards the dark skyscraper. Jonah stepped out ahead her, quickening his pace. Niao shouldered past him, turning her gait to a jog. They broke into smiles, laughing as they jostled each other playfully and jockeyed for position. The neon lights painted rainbows across their faces as they sprinted down the street. They were both out of breath when they reached the north side entrance of Androica Tower.
Here it was dim; the city glow ended some two hundred meters ago. The building's sides slanted inward to a short, flat back overlooking unpopulated marsh. From above, the tower appeared as a handle-less Big Dipper. A seventy story Ursa Major built from stone and glass. Niao reached into her pack and brought out a card spoofing device. She ran a blank card into the door's reader. Instead of programming a key, she tapped the tiny screen until a barely audible hum indicated that she had routed a minimal amount of power to the electric lock. Her fingers input a four number sequence, and the door clicked open.
"You knew the combination?" Jonah asked.
"Lucky guess?" She gave a half-hearted smile as she squirmed beneath the hoodie. "I... I may have been here before."
"Just when I think I have you figured out..." Jonah trailed off, his face-spanning grin fully sincere. "How long have you been planning this?"
"I've been thinking about it for a while. Come on, let's go before it gets too dark." Dusk loomed as the sun slipped below the tree line, leaving only the shades of civil twilight. Inside the tower was pitch black. Jonah unclipped a penlight from his keychain and washed the beam over sterile eggshell walls. Any decorations or office nameplates had long since been removed, leaving the interior an eerie blank space. A white collar ghost town.
"I'm guessing you thought ahead and brought the blueprints." Jonah swept the light left then right, from top to bottom.
"Yeah, of course." Niao dug through the satchel without removing it, pulling out the schematics.
They laid the plans out on the floor and studied them. Jonah pointed to a massive single room on the opposite side of the building, five floors underground. "I want to see the production room. Think they left any spare parts?" His finger found another large workspace on the fifteenth floor. "Ooh! And Programming! I heard they secretly made assassins! Like, they were disguised as service bots until you gave them a trigger code." Jonah's voice took on the tone of a campfire story. He tried to spook her, but his smirk gave away his good-natured teasing. "And before they moved, they actually made some that were completely indistinguishable from humans. Han said the CEO was one of them. Can you imagine?"
Niao grabbed his hand. "I want to go to the roof."
"Okay. Yeah, we'll start there and make our way back down," she felt his heart beat faster through the skin where her fingers touched his wrist. "Looks like the elevators are over there." He pointed at a battery of small rectangles on the diagram.
"I don't think I have enough juice to power them all the way to the top." Niao replied.
"Well, the stairwell is right here. Hold this." He handed her the flashlight and opened a door to his right. "I'll need my hand back if I'm going to lead the way..."
Niao bit her lip again, hesitant to reply.
"Or, you could keep holding the light for me?" He suggested. She nodded at him and together they began the long ascent. They climbed in silence for a time, Niao huddled as close to him as possible without impeding his progress.
Somewhere around the twentieth floor, she whispered to him. "I heard they didn't just build androids here." Jonah slowed a half-step. "What do you mean?" "I heard they did human experiments too. Like DNA manipulation. Mutations."
"Yeah, I've heard that one too. Might be kind of cool, making superheroes and stuff. Maybe we'll find something about it in R&D."
"No, not cool stuff. Bad stuff. Like needles and injections. And then they would torture them to try and trigger their powers." She shuddered, her grip tightening on his hand.
"Jeez, that's horrible. I really hope that one's not true." She loosened up again as he gave her hand a small squeeze of reassurance. Jonah's breath began to rasp with each step. "Hey, you didn't happen to bring any boost, did you?"
They rested at a landing as Niao pulled a canister module from the pack. Jonah slipped the tubing into his nostrils and drew two deep inhalations. He held it out to Niao, who did the same. They waited the requisite thirty seconds for full lactic acid reabsorption, then resumed the climb.
They finally reached the top, and opened the roof access with a few minutes of full visibility to spare. Jonah spun about slowly. "I think I can see the edge of the world from here," he joked as he stopped turning. The short western face of the tower overlooked the setting sun. The undeveloped fen below displayed a stark contrast to the grimy fluorescence of the metropolis to the east.
Niao giggled as she made her way toward the ledge. She looked over the dizzying height and took a deep breath. She turned to Jonah. "So I brought you up here to show you something..." She slipped off the hoodie, revealing dark shoulder-length hair, dyed with teal and violet. It emerged from its dour fleece cover like a supernova. She rarely showed it off, even as much as she liked it. Niao then removed her thin cotton blouse. She wore nothing underneath, but was quick to cover herself. Still, she did not turn her back to him.
"Niao, I-I had n-no idea..." Jonah stammered.
"No!" She blushed bright crimson as she read his mind. Her first instinct was to hide the flush behind her hands, but she kept them cupped to her breasts. The puckered bronze patches of old burn scars peeked out from under her elbows and ran across her sides. "That's not what I meant to show you." Niao paused as she saw the embarrassment on Jonah's face, his shoulders slumping as he tried to shrink away. She quickly recovered. "But, maybe we can talk about that afterwards. I think I'd like that." Her eyes twinkled and she offered an awkward smile.
"Y-Yeah, of course. Me too," again he stuttered, and took a cautious step toward her. "So, what is it that you did want me to see?"
"Stay there!" Niao held out a palm in a halting gesture. Realizing that she had exposed herself for a brief moment, she snapped the hand back to her chest, reclaiming as much modesty as possible. Her breath quickened as she observed it was Jonah's turn to have his cheeks change colors. She was glad she picked him. "You have to trust me." She stared into his eyes, taking a step back and up onto the ledge.
"Niao, what are you doing?" Jonah's voice rose as his brow furrowed.
"Just trust me." She closed her eyes and leaned back. Then she disappeared into the void.
"Niao!" Jonah screamed as she fell away. He rushed to where she had just stood and peered below.
Her wings unfurled gracefully as she plunged. Niao arched her back and allowed them to spread to their full span, catching the air and lifting her out of the dive. Loose feathers floated away, some down to the marsh below, one swept in an updraft back to the tower roof. She spread her arms out as she pulled into a glide. She didn't care if he saw anymore. She wanted him to see everything.
On the rooftop, Jonah stood, mouth agape. Niao flapped her wings in strong, deliberate motions, gaining altitude to close the distance to the tower top. A solitary feather danced in the wind, just within his reach. He gently plucked it from the atmosphere and held it close to his body. A single thought solidified in his mind, repeating as it became clearer.
I love the girl who can fly.