The morning after, I took a trip to the west side of town, where you'd find fewer skyscrapers and colored lights to mask the gritty atmosphere. If you thought downtown was chaotic, wait till you'd see the never-ending stream of banners and light-up signs across every patch of building in the Market Cluster. There were no singular large structures, so somewhere between these buildings was bound to be someone's home. Tramways and bridges webbed above the ground blocking off most of the sunlight like a canopy. The Market Cluster had various levels, too, adding more chaos to the infostructure.
It was hell. Without any navigation guide, you could get lost here for a week without making it a mile in any direction. But right now, it was a standard commute for me; I was headed to Keiffer's tech shop to make some repairs.
Getting off the tram, I walked to the lower levels of the Market Cluster to the mechanical district. If you wanted some cyber-ware tuned up, armor repaired, weapons modded, or any kind of tech customized from scratch, this was the place. Official shops owned by leading brands don't allow certain modifications to a lot of tech, and their prices were highway robbery compared to the deals you can get from local engineers and merchants. So it was best to go local and support small businesses.
After a few minutes of walking through the 'Cluster maze,' I came upon a small rusty warehouse. The main entrance was a small side door contrasting the big exterior metal walls and high windows around the tech shop. As soon as I stepped inside, I could hear the sharp buzzing of a cutting saw. Kieffer the engineer was hard at work on the second floor of his shop with welding goggles and earplugs on.
"Keiffer!" I called.
"Huh? Eiji! My man! How's it going, bro?" He set down his tools and removed his goggles, wiping the sweat from his brows. He wore a long ragged shirt with rolled-up sleeves, showing his robotic left arm. The arm was platinum-colored, with yellow lights faintly illuminating from the inside. Keiffer grabbed a steel chain and swung down to the first floor like a spider. "What you got for me?" he panted, recovering from his busy work.
"-along with some notes."
"Ooh, not sweet. Hopefully, some helpful critique this time rather than complaints." Now next to me, he greeted me with a fist bump. He stood over me, standing at nearly six feet tall. His body matched that of a man who worked with his hands all day. His hair was short but somehow messy, along with his trimmed beard. Kieffer's face, though, was what I would call a 'hipster lumberjack.'
I approached one of his worktables, setting down a duffle bag I had brought. On top of some junk lying about, the bag's thud caused dust to rise from the impact.
"Hey, easy, my work's under there," Keiffer yelped.
"Woah, everything in this shop is a project waiting to happen. No part wasted. You break something, you pay," he waved a finger at me, "What's in the bag?"
"First, the Mapping Orb. Need it reloaded and tuned up. I think one of the barrels is jammed too,"
"Three barrels," Keiffer noticed immediately as I handed him the device. He twisted the ball open and began emptying the other barrels. "And what happened to the name I gave it: Shooting Star."
"Too on the nose and stupid."
"What? But you're Dark- star, and the ball shoots!" he laughed.
"I prefer Mapping Orb," I said, bringing out my next item for repair.
"Well, it does more than 'map,' so picked a cooler name-"
"And then there's the wingsuit…" I laid out the suit neatly so on the table.
"What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing, I just don't like it," I said.
"I didn't build it so you could like it. You asked for something to travel through the air discreetly, so I did."
"Well, I'm not exactly flying through the air now- I'm falling. Gliding. What I want is something to get me through the air with control. I keep telling you- just modify the hoverboard. Please."
"It doesn't work like that. The hover engine is fixed to carry a certain weight depending on its size. And your hoverboard can only float a few feet off the ground, not fly. You want stealth, so I can't add a bigger engine without ditching the board. Anything other than that would be asking me to reinvent aerodynamics engineering. You want to use the hover engine? Get a bigger engine and vehicle."
That idea wasn't too promising. I needed something small, fast, and stealthy above all. Considering its speed and compact design, my hoverboard would've been great for that. There was another option, though. One stupidly simple yet childish.
"What about a jetpack?" I asked
"Hmmm, old school. But tricky," Keiffer scratched his beard in thought. "The heat from the exhaust is the biggest problem. To counter that would be heavy armor for protection, but that adds weight. Then you have your control problem. The jetpack could only do so much without control of where you're going. You could add controlling handles that connect to the main unit… but it has to be small…" His mind wandered off, already trying to solve a problem too big to answer now.
I admired how passionate he was at approaching every challenge, hoping to make something new. And then continuing to improve upon it. "We'll table it for now, I guess," I yielded from the idea.
"Was my suit decent, at least?" he wondered.
"It did the job, just not really my thing. That reminds me. What do you make of this?" I pulled out the heavy gem from the heist.
"What is this?" he held the rock carefully in awe.
"Rotas Core. Some fancy gem that was up for auction."
"You stole it?"
"We did. At least, I helped. The Skulls had a mission to steal this gem for their leader. I was tasked to kill all of them for the job Marshall gave me. He let me keep this as an incentive to work with him again."
"Sounds shady. But that is Marshall. So what do you want me to do with it?" he asked.
"Well, first, you can tell me what it is. And how much it's worth."
As I said this, Keiffer reached for his work belt to grab a big teched-out loupe. He scrunched his face as he carefully inspected the blackish-blue rock. Soon after, he grabbed a scanner from his other work table and held it towards the rock. An old noisy buzz emitted from the scanner.
"Huh… it's not showing up on the elemental database. So it's not from Earth, for one thing. As for the price, I can't say. It does look expensive, though. But I would keep it. It'll be hard finding someone who can afford to buy it. Plus, with it being stolen, you wouldn't want it traced back to you by the police," Keiffer clicked his tongue.
"What am I supposed to do with it then?"
"For now, I'll ring up my appraisal guy to get a look at this thing to figure out what it is exactly."
"Thanks, Kieffer," I sighed.
I sat down on one of the chairs nearby as Keiffer returned to the Mapping Orb for fixing. My body relaxed a bit, knowing I was done with most of my tasks for the month. The large space of the shop put my mind at ease too. Something about vast empty areas hit the spot for me. Maybe cause everything in the world was so cramped together with no room to breathe.
"Oh, I've already heard rumors, by the way, of how the Skulls went out. Most people are saying it was a gang shootout. They'd probably spit-take if they found out it was one guy who did them," Keiffer noted.
"Well, that's how great they were… Too big to take down," I said.
"Was it hard? Taking 'care' of them?" he cautiously asked.
"... It was… effortless. Gain their trust, wait for an opening… nothing to it. They're just human, after all."
"How were they?"
"As people," he pursued curiously.
Good question. When I ran into Nix, she first tried to kill me. She was in muddy waters with some other gang, so I aided her and found my way into the Midnight Clan. Meeting each member was memorable; they were so vibrant and unique.
"They were average as you and me. They ate food, made jokes, and complained about the world. A real sense of comradery. As difficult and jarring as they were, I warmed up to them. One time though- heh- there was this soda can perched up on this window stool above us. Zhivago and Yuno were trying to knock it down with some pebbles. Next thing you know- Yuno hits it off, bringing the can down to explode all over Zhivago. He chased Yuno around for what felt like an hour," I broke out into a small stifled laughter.
The memory was pretty great and one of my highlights among that group. The more I thought about it, every day wasn't so dreadful with them around. Just pretty tense at times, considering my covert purpose there. I almost forgot how long ago it was since I took that job. Their company sure made the time fly.
"They sounded like a fun group, honestly. Too bad they were your target, tough," Keiffer said, staring down at his work.
"... Yeah… they were… Um- look. I'll be back sometime later this week," I began hurriedly walking towards the exit.
"Oh, okay… see ya, kid."
The thought bothered me. Could I have found some genuine company if I wasn't tasked to kill the Skulls? I figured I could have some normalcy by having friends around. Sure they were killers, but so was I.
Have I set the bar that low?
Beggars can't be choosers. But I found it depressing that I couldn't even keep a pack of thieves around as friends. They were on the wrong end of the barrel this time, but do I even deserve it? A normal life?
If I was being honest with myself… I wouldn't like to know the answer to that question.
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