In Chapter One, The Crux readers were led into a mysterious city where the skilled, and resolutely mercenary  hacker Vyris is a respected, even revered leader of its underworld community. Vyris has now been hired by a seemingly powerful, well-connected stranger to complete a hacking mission that will likely give her boundless wealth …. but the actual job commissioned by this intriguing man remains unknown. An ominous sense of danger lingers as The Crux moves into Chapter Two…


My head was ravaged by the blazing sear of an untended-to hangover, as I sputtered awake in a coughing fit. Integrated neon lights pulsating through the ceiling above, and my eyes forcefully clenched shut. I gritted my teeth in response to this sudden, powerful pain,  my overloaded senses hitting me all at once. My sinuses now filled with the stale, skunky smell of smoke clinging to every inch of fabric surrounding me. Beneath that, a scent reminiscent of old-world syrup medication – sickeningly sweet and vaguely alcoholic – radiated from my pores.

With reluctance, my sorely dehydrated mouth unhinged and creaked open, allowing me to run my tongue over cracking lips in a weak attempt to add some moisture. I was overwhelmed by a flavour which could only be described as ‘blue’. As I rolled to the side, every one of my vertebrae seemed to crack and settle, necessary for loosening-up from the stiffened position I appeared to have spent my night in – or rather, morning? God, what time is it?

My wrist slowly tilted into view, followed by a holographic screen sliding into the air above my comm. My eyes stung as they managed to make out … 2:56PM? I let out a groan before rolling off the couch onto the floor. I landed in a crouch, perched on one knee. The transition would have been smooth if not for the violent wave of nausea now overcoming me, a sizzle of bile and booze writhing in my stomach while scorching the back of my throat. My head pounded with pain, and I swallowed sourly before booking it for the nearby bathroom – hoping that sheer speed would counteract the incoming headrush.

I skidded down the hallway, charging into the bathroom. I made it just in time to hunch over, one hand on the toilet’s cold metallic surface, and hastily lean in – while snatching a thin, cylindrical silver contraption off the sill, my thumb fumbling up against the switch. The top of the tube slid open, and I slammed the revealed sensor against my temple. A sharp and chilling, yet soothingly familiar electric pulse coursed throughout my body, its echo resonated ever so slightly through my comm.

As if nothing had happened, I stood up and inhaled deeply, met with a pleasantly fresh aeration from the nearby oxygen purifier. I took a long and much-needed stretch, elongating my arms towards the ceiling as a beastly grumble escaped my lips. Hands placed on my lower back, I leaned into a firm arch, rotating my neck and shoulders to release the remaining stiffness. Damn, I needed that. Straightening up, making a glance into the mirror – my battered face was reflected there. I was as far as you could get from a morning person on a good day, and apparently after a night like that, I was as far as you could get from a 3PM person, too.

Although most of the bathroom was dimly lit by intricate, blue neon patterns, the large portrait mirror was surrounded by warm, white spotlights. These were intended to display our flattered, enhanced appearance – but no artificial glow could disguise my dark circles, messy hair, wrinkled, misaligned cloak, and chapped blue lips. I allowed myself a slight smile as I shook my head, before leaning in towards the automatic sink, splashing cold water up onto my face. My puffy eyes eased after being submerged in the wonderfully cool liquid. I used my damp fingers to comb out the few tangles which had formed in my hair through the night, before quickly tucking it underneath my hood. I figured that this quick once-over would suffice, and I turned to head back to the main room.

This time down the hallway, I allowed my eyes to adjust, noting its cold and mechanical feel. The floor was plain, sleek sheet metal, scattered with dark foam pads – likely intended to add warmth and traction. The walls were panelled with a sheet metal as well, although darker and textured heavily with uneven rivets. Some panels had been removed to reveal outdated piping hiding within the walls, rotting away in obsolescence. I doubt you could pawn crappy, mass-produced old parts like that for a decent price. You’d probably be lucky if you got the worth of the metal weight itself. I turned out of the hallway, back into the room in which I’d apparently spent my night. Or, morning? Still not quite certain on the logistics of timing there. But, it was a room where I suppose that I had felt comfortable enough to fall asleep.

The ceiling was black and criss-crossed by intricate circuit-inspired designs, each rhythmically pulsing with a vibrant green glow. The room walls also appeared to be a sort of shoddy, worn metal, but the strange artwork, alternative posters, and old images coating it obscured the underlying material. The floor was surfaced with a softened covering, which was meant to give an ashy wood finish appearance. I assumed beneath this floor some sort of reinforced metallic grating was the source of comforting heat resonating upwards from beneath the soft panelling. There were multiple shelves and bookcases positioned throughout the room, each packed with different electronic parts, some glowing sporadically, as well as knickknacks and sculptures suggesting a variety of obscure and eccentric interests must be associated with their owners.

A very large desk filed the nearby corner. It was surrounded by different bits and pieces, modifications made for a variety of devices. A large, shiny, metallic plaque rested in the middle of the desk – one surely emitting a mirage of different holograms upon activation. Affixed to the walls were large music speakers, quite outdated when much smaller speakers can produce a clearer or louder sound – but I think they’re mainly for appearance.

A very beat-up version of a popular antique arcade game – Hac Man – generated a dim glow in the opposite corner. A small hacker, clothed in yellow, narrowly avoids colourful computer viruses while collecting data bytes. Totally outdated and an utterly ironic interest, but I had to admit I have always found Hac Man strangely entertaining. The screen transitioned from the introductory trailer to display the current leaderboard. ‘VY’ of course, held every single one of the top ten positions — My eyes froze. By what had to have been a very slim margin, ‘AX’ had managed to usurp the previous record and slide into the final displayed position. I crinkled my nose ever so slightly, but quickly averted my eyes in order to maintain my focus. I’ll crush that bastard later.

I made my way back over to the couch, plopping onto it before reaching down. An old flannel blanket that I didn’t recall waking up with was strewn next to me, covering my boots from sight. They appeared to have been unravelled from my feet and tossed hastily beside where I slept. As I maneuvered them out from underneath the blanket, I noted that it had been modified with a heat transmitting layer. My feet slid into my boots comfortably. I tapped my fingers across my comm, and as their lights pulsed to life – they ravelled back up around my legs. Satisfied, I leaned back, nearly engulfed by the plush couch exterior.

In the silence, I finally allowed myself a moment for everything to sink in. A chill crept its way into my bones and my chest. I stared up at the intricate, pulsing lights of a very familiar ceiling. It was far from my first time staring up like this in thought, especially in remembrance of a long and foolish night. However, no amount of prior impulsiveness could ever compare to what I had experienced last night.

I had often wondered what the average surface dweller would do after winning a lottery. Something which to them was life changing, but to me was now only a mere pair of boots. How would they feel? Would they react with logic, and head over to their nearby bank where they placed their trust? Would they sit stoically at their desk, staring out a window, planning for their new future? Would they perhaps believe their grateful God had plopped this gift into their selfish hands? Would they instead rush out, blow too large a portion of their new earnings on some excessive, unnecessary belongings in a fit of greed, excitement, or their perceived lack of limitations? Or, would they be sentimental? Would they take their family in their arms, just enjoying each other’s company on a first day of the rest of their lives?

I had often struggled to understand what surface world values they held most dearly, and how much their moralities differed from the users inhabiting the Crux. I suppose that last night revealed many things I’d wondered about myself, my motivations, my limitations – my greed.

I had also fanaticized about what I would do first upon winning a fortune. I learned very quickly my answer to that question was drink.

I began to think everything through, tension growing as my fingers weaved their way together. My teeth began to dig into my bottom lip. The sinister glint of his deep, golden eyes bore holes into my mind. A port—and then a database, the memories flooding in. A deal was now struck; a choice was now made. The weight of a port was suddenly sinking through my pocket. Tonight. The location. The mission. Thoughts raced back and forth through my mind. I was struggling to grasp any of them for more than a moment. I had no one to blame but myself. I closed my eyes tightly shut, nose crinkling. Suddenly, like a cruel recap, the images of glass after glass, turning to bottle after bottle, and ashtray after ashtray barreled across my vision – more like recalling bad decision after bad decision.

I pursed my lips together and shook my head, realizing just how much of the night had become a blurred haze. For someone who needed to be on constant high alert, now more than ever before, I had certainly failed. The impact of the weight and power behind my decision seemed to be taking its toll. But … I can’t say I regret it now. I know in some way, I’m helping everyone, too – even just a little bit, even if the inevitable is only being delayed. In the Crux, we’ve never been hidden as well as we thought — I had never been hidden as well as I thought. Until now. My pathetic attempt to fill my mind with selfless morality was short-lived, as my shaky fingers darted for my comm, quickly ripping through the screens until my account began to load. I came to a resounding halt directly in front of those bloody, beautiful zeroes. I inhaled sharply, and a ravenous smirk clawed its way onto my lips. I couldn’t deny what had really driven me to make my choice, and there was no decision I could ever regret for that much money. Everyone has a breaking point – it just so happened that I’d found mine.

Unblinking, I allowed the bright imprint of zeroes to burn into my eyes. Any earlier guilt that may have lurked within me was simply dripping away. My smirk grew into an even bigger, greedy grin as it all sunk in. Good luck was now my reality — and being rich is never a bad thing.


 

Chapter Two, installment 2 will appear here on January 15. For all other The Crux news, please follow Ayla at http://www.facebook.com/thecruxofficial

Ayla-Rose Warth and UFE Tagona Press © 2019