‘The Crux’: Chapter 2, Second Installment

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The mysterious, underworld Crux

In the previous Crux instalment, Vyris has survived a long night of drinking, and celebrating her new affluence. Emerging from her hangover, Vyris is now wondering just what the new, ominous hacking mission funded by the mysterious Crux visitor will involve.

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Fueled by the newfound energy flowing from my recent success, I lifted myself from the couch’s comforting familiarity and landed eagerly upon my feet. My eyes were set on higher prizes now. I began to make my way down another dimly lit hall, acting as if I had tunnel vision as I moved past the side doorway which I knew led into the cookery. I could just sense that precariously towering pile of unwashed dishes, but I’m not a nag and I’ll be damned before I stoop to be someone else’s maid – so instead, I chose to be blissfully ignorant. Real men can clean up after their damn selves, I shook my head. At the end of the hallway, I paused in front of a set of very large, solid-metal doors, hovering in silence until I was certain I could hear a metallic clamoring coming from inside.

With a bit of force, I shoved open the massive door – immediately engulfed by an unbearable wave of heat. God, this garage always made me regret wearing a cloak. A single step in was followed by the doors swinging shut with a loud clash. I was now immersed in a rusted and worn workshop, where most visible surfaces were blackened from years of smoke and metallic dust. Different parts and contraptions seemed to line every clutter-filled surface – no organization system I’d ever be able to grasp. There seemed to be endless rows of shelving – storage for tools, old gadgets, circuitry, blade and mouldings, as well as raw materials. As I maneuvered between large contraptions loitering the empty space, and different projects in progress, my ears were met by the sound of sizzling, accompanied by a strange metallic clangour. I ducked beneath what appeared to be a large part for some sort of aerial vehicle, and that’s where I found him at work. He was hunched over a large table of holograms, hands shifting something metallic from beneath the hovering diagram – but he paused briefly as I entered his vicinity.

“Mornin’ sleeping beauty” Axel barked out … with a bit of a smirk, sparing me a glance from his work as he quickly seemed to analyze my ‘morning-after’ composure. “Glad somebody in this house got to sleep in. Y’see, some of us actually have to work hard to earn our livings.”

“Ouch,” I chuckled. I wasn’t sure if that was a drag at my occupation in general or if he’d caught wind of my antics from the night before. With Axel, it was always safer to assume the latter. I peered over his shoulder at the metal he was moulding.

A thin, intricately laced silver band was deeply embedded into each of Axel’s biceps, metal melding together with his scarred, golden flesh. As they were activated, a green light circled continuously around the bands’ coiled centres. At what seemed like his will, shiny metallic sleeves of nanotech would unsheathe from them, moulding around his arms and delicately winding around each of his fingers. Originally, it was intended as a pricey alternative to cybernetic-level strength without needing to lose both of his arms – but Axel made it so much more than that. At his control, the sleeves could radiate and withstand a designated amount of heat – allowing him to weld and shape different parts without requiring the tedious amount of time and tools that the previous stone-age style of blacksmithing did. In a raw and beautiful way, he combined quality workmanship with technological engineering. Just the modifications that he’d done to my comm were enough to make me admire his talent. Each of his sheathed fingertips could slide apart, panels revealing smaller and more technical inner workings and tools, allowing Axel to make intricate manoeuvres on tiny electronic parts – but those abilities only accounted for a fraction of his enhancements.

“You missed a spot.” I pestered, pointing randomly although I couldn’t actually see what he was working on. I quickly regretted being a smart-ass as flames sprung up at me from his gloved fingertips. He erupted into laughter as I leapt backwards and exaggeratedly hopped up onto the large wing shell which had earlier blocked my path.

“Poor timing,” Axel retorted smugly. “This baby is complete!”

In one smooth gesture, the holograms dissipated, and the glowing heat was extinguished. Axel moved his fingers against his wrist, and his nanotech sheaths retracted. He turned to me with a large swing – a delicately pressurized, wickedly curved blade extending broadly from his clenched hands. My eyes flickered up and down the length of it, one look showed you that thing was the epitome of sharp. Axel’s creations never ceased to impress. I gave him my nod of approval – not that I believed he needed it, but he found it to suffice. He reached out, sliding his hand against his comm, which had been revealed from beneath his nanotech After a few more taps, panels were uncovered from the nearby flooring, and hovering display cases ascended from beneath. Axel slid the blade into one of the sleek boxes, causing it to be suspended in mid-air above a dramatically glowing crimson pad. He stepped back for a moment, folding his arms over his chest and exhaling deeply as a smile crossed his face. I could tell from a single look that he was immensely satisfied with his work.

“Another job well done,” I teased from my perch.

Axel chuckled slightly in response, before hopping onto the other end of the large metallic shell. His fingers slid across his comm absentmindedly, and I perked an eyebrow as a whizzing sound began to draw near. I turned my head just in time to watch a bright blue, miniature refrigeration unit hover into view, completed with large speakers and colourful strobing lights.

I rolled my eyes impulsively, stifling a laugh. “You’re telling me you managed to harness a technology akin to telekinesis, and the first thing you do is call for a drink?”

“Are you really telling me right now that you don’t want an ice-cold, refreshing carbonated beverage from my cyber-butler?” Axel raised an eyebrow as he cracked open a can from the refrigeration unit. I was forced to watch as he extended a pinky and slurped obnoxiously from the brim.

“You look like an insufferable tool,” I muttered, before snatching a can from the butler. I popped the tab and chugged half of the can. I could tell Axel still took it as a win, as he settled back against the metallic surface with a smug expression.

“I’m not surprised you’ve got a thirst like that on after the night you had.” He said, matter-of-fact. Again, I found myself reading into what he was saying. I decided to just accept that at some point he was going to try and shove this conversation that I didn’t want to have down my throat, but continued to try and push the subject in a lighter direction.

“Jokes on you buddy, I shocked myself right out of that hangover.” I gave him a big grin, before slamming back more of the sugary, energizing beverage.

“Pfffft …. like I couldn’t tell? You wouldn’t be up and walking till tomorrow if you hadn’t.” Axel’s response was snarky, like our usual joking manner, but I couldn’t help but feel a tension in the air that I couldn’t recall feeling before. For a moment, I wondered if my unconscious semblances of guilt were simply causing me to look for judgement from my peers, but I think psychoanalyzing myself at a time like this is a bit heavier than assuming Axel knows something’s up.

I smiled at his joke, and continued to focus more of my attention towards the drink in my hands. I couldn’t help but feel the confines of silence slowing clawing its way into our conversation, thickening the air and choking me from inside.

Axel must have felt the slight tension, too, because he apparently felt the need to weakly attempt to fill the silence. “Yeah, it was a long night.” He mumbled, a bemused and thoughtful tone which felt beyond forced. I hate it when people tried to drag conversations on like that. It never worked – as this proved. I looked over at him, swirling around the remaining beverage inside of my can. I chose not to add to the conversation, I knew it could only be heading in one direction.

The silence continued.

Suddenly, Axel began to open his mouth again, and I perked up. I knew it, you nosy bastar–

“Are we going to talk about it?” He asked, as if the question was entirely nonchalant.

–Damn, I didn’t expect him to be so painfully blunt about it. I felt a rush of satisfaction and spite coursed through my veins when he confirmed I hadn’t been reading into things in a strange fit of paranoia. However, in the moment after, I felt disturbed that he had tossed out a question like that so simply. It was so out of place that I found myself completely unprepared and for once without a sarcastic comeback. In my hesitance to respond, I could feel his eyes burning holes into me.

“What makes you think it’s any of your business?” I spat back in return. I felt regretful about my harshness but at the same time, he should have known better than to pry. The air was stiff.

“It’s just— Jeez, I’m not that stupid. Y’know, I can tell something has changed, that things are different now. I may not know what exactly is going on, but I know no lousy two ports has ever sent you into such a reckless frenzy. Something had to have happened.” He tried to explain himself to me, and I could feel his emotions interweaving into his speech.

I sighed heavily. I couldn’t blame him for being curious about it all—I would be too, especially if there was something meddling within my immediate circle. The difference between Axel and I was that if there was information I wanted, I had ways of finding it out without alerting anyone to my curiosities in the first place. Just blurting out the question to the source was a brutal way of trying to gather info. Even now, in this open conversation with someone I’d known for so long, I still felt haggled and put-off. I took a moment to really understand why he was asking. I didn’t like this break in the privatizing etiquette which had suited me so well down here so far – but he was someone I had considered a friend, and it was reasonable for him to have questions. I kept that in mind, not losing my cool again.

“You’re right,” I said, deciding I’d give him a vague run-down and hope he was fulfilled enough. “I got a new job offer yesterday. This one’s gonna be a big one, I can tell. It’s got a good pay, and I shouldn’t be gone for too long.” I smiled reassuringly, as if I was excited and confident about the task ahead.

Axel opened his mouth, a bit of a quizzical look on his face. “That sounds pretty suspi—”

“–Axel!” I interrupted him abruptly, so much for not losing my cool. I had been too tense to begin with and was immediately set off by his doubts. “I’ve done more jobs on my own than you’ve lived days in your miserable life. Where do you get off questioning my judgment? Who gave you the right to assume I don’t know what’s best for me?”

“You gave me the right when you acted like that last night,” Axel almost growled. “But you were so hammered you wouldn’t remember either way.”

That stung a bit, leaving me to wonder if I was projecting my own insecurities onto Axel. I grit my teeth. “This new employer doesn’t control me, the chasers don’t control me, the overseers don’t control me – where the hell do you think you’ve found the power to? I don’t need your help, I don’t need your permission, and I sure as hell didn’t ask for your opinion.”

Axel was silent as he watched me angrily fumble with my comm. My fingers smashed through the different holographic screens before I slammed my fist down. I heard the ding come from Axel’s arm. “If you were really my friend, and you really wanted to ‘help’ me – you’d be smart to realize: I know what the hell I’m doing! Instead of trying to hinder me, help me – protect me. Suit me up in your best tech. You know better than anyone that nobody can use it like I can.”

Axel didn’t seem entirely convinced as I spoke, but as my monologue completed, I watched his eyes slowly drip down from mine and land onto the Neta transfer hovering above his comm. I couldn’t help but smirk knowingly as I watched his eyes become saucers. “Consider it an investment,” I cooed. Compared to the fortune I’d just inherited, I had dropped a handful of coins into Axel’s talented little top hat on a street corner.

“We could be unstoppable, Ax.” I murmured, watching the expression on his face change as I knew I had won. This amount of money would set Axel up for a higher level of engineering – we both knew it. The prospect of more to come only made the deal seem that much more desirable.

And there it was. An all-too-familiar expression, an all-too familiar response; perhaps we users were all fueled by the same, cruel force. As I watched Axel’s hand extend, slapping against his comm, no longer doubting my choices or my logic – I could see by the glint of unalterable certainty in his eyes. Within all of our selfishness and greed and desire, maybe deep down, there was only one true thing driving us.

            His deep, brown eyes met mine suddenly – intensity unparalleled. His voice came out in a whisper, but as he spoke a grin crept across his face.

“We will be unstoppable, Vyris.”

…..

The Crux Chapter Three will continue with two more instalments coming in February. At UFE Tagona Press, we are very pleased by the attention Ayla’s story has attracted to date…. and we are very happy that so many readers have offered up their ideas about Vyris, the story, and where it might be headed!

You can read all previous Crux instalments here in the SaultStream serials, or follow The Crux on Facebook.