Another chapter that I actually split into two. This is also shorter than the last one, I think, because of that.
Fortunately this means the next one will be easy(ish) to write.
“It’s been so long, I forgot what a fast worker you were,” Axel’s latest employer spoke with awe in her voice, watching Axel work. When Axel didn’t respond, she cleared her throat. “Ah… I know you were never one to talk much, but you’re basically a robot now. Uh, no offense meant.”
Axel shrugged, having little interest in trying to speak to the woman. She wasn’t offended by the woman’s words, but she did want to finish the job as quickly as possible, because her mind couldn’t stop wandering and shoving half-memories and fantasies across her vision when she closed her eyes.
Shaking her head, she focused on the packaged bars, grabbing stacks of them and putting them into boxes. There were at least a dozen boxes beside her, and she filled them all without missing a beat.
I can’t wait until this is over.
It was the safest and easiest job Axel could find, a necessity with how sick and hurt she was, but it was also dreadfully boring and she hated every second of it. The entire job was monotonous and seemed without end, and the only thing she could do to keep herself from falling asleep was thinking about the mechs and reminding herself that the completion of this job would pay in food.
“…Yeah, I’m just going to update my databases and schedules, and leave you to it,” the woman said after a lengthy silence, backing away from Axel and letting out a nervous laugh. “You’re almost done, though! And in record time, too, so uh, thanks for that.”
Axel relaxed once the woman left her alone, but couldn’t help but scowl when she saw more packaged meal bars coming down the conveyor belt. If the promise of food with the additional payment didn’t exist, she would have quit the job immediately.
How the hell did I tolerate this before the accident? I’m bored out of my skull.
After several more minutes, the conveyor belt offered no more packaged bars to box, and Axel breathed a sigh of relief. The sleepiness faded from her and she boxed the remaining bars with a tad more bounce in her step. Once they were boxed, she walked over to the woman.
“Done already?” the woman looked up from her screen when Axel tapped her shoulder. “That’s great! Give me a second and I’ll get your payment in order. Sound good?”
Axel nodded, standing there and waiting patiently while the woman went elsewhere into a small storage room. The woman’s friendliness should’ve been a welcome thing to Axel, but her constantly anxious mind could only see it as off-putting. She found the conflicted feelings annoying, and so popped the thoughts like a bubble and forced herself to put on the best smile she could muster when the woman returned with her payment.
“Here you are!” The woman’s cheer seemed just as forced as Axel’s own smile, and Axel thought she caught the ghost of pain within the woman’s brown eyes. The woman handed her a bag that contained a meal bar and a meal bone as well as a bottle of water. She took Axel’s card when she handed it over and swiped it in the reader, and then handed it back to Axel. “Thanks for your help today!”
Axel nodded in response, the best effort she could make at thanking the woman herself. And then she turned around to leave the factory, the door sliding open to greet her with Cirrus giving her the goofy grin golden retrievers were known for. Axel smiled a real smile at her, her body shaking from contained chuckles at Cirrus wagging her tail.
Hey, girl. I’m glad you waited.
Axel’s irritation melted away instantly as she reached down to pat Cirrus on the head. The desire to wallow in her negative emotions was still strong, but Axel found she couldn’t do it when she looked at Cirrus. She couldn’t say why that was the case or if it had always been the case, so she shrugged and moved on.
Animals have powers, I guess. Healing powers, apparently…
Despite Axel’s attempts to set the thought aside, it led to more thoughts and soon her mind spiraled out of control. She hadn’t seen many animals on the Valiance, with Cirrus being the only one she saw constantly. She remembered that the vast majority of the animals were kept in the shining city outside the Valiance, but she couldn’t remember why. Of course, with the Valiance in a state of slow destruction and dwindling resources, she didn’t have to wonder for long.
I’d like to see a bird, a cat, a lizard, a horse… Every animal I’ve never seen. And other types of dogs. Wolves, too!
Axel shook her head to banish the childish ramblings going on in her mind. She gritted her teeth and put on her best scowl, hoping no one had noticed her moment of wistfulness as she walked through the steam-filled corridors for the hundredth time.
She had a fierce reputation to keep, after all. Or rather, rebuild, and letting people see her staring off into space like that wasn’t helpful.
Once they were both back in the relative comfort of their quarters, Axel poured half of the bottled water into Cirrus’ bowl and watched her lap it up with her tongue. Axel set the bone down beside her and then sat up on her bed, pulling the bar out of the bag and taking a bite.
Her thoughts strayed to the mech she used to pilot. She had more of an image of it in her mind now. A velociraptor, like in her dream. She couldn’t remember much more than that, and she also realized she didn’t know what had become of it. Lorelei had said nothing to her about it, and her silence especially gave Axel pause.
She didn’t scrap it, did she?
Jumping to conclusions she may have been, the possibility seemed too real to Axel and it formed a pit in her stomach. If Lorelei had indeed been cruel enough to scrap her mech without her knowledge, she… well, she wasn’t sure punching Lorelei in the face was the acceptable course of action, but she couldn’t think of anything else. It wouldn’t end well, whatever happened.
A shrill, pathetic whine from Cirrus tore through Axel’s thoughts and sent chills down her spine. She looked over the edge of the bed at Cirrus.
To Axel’s surprise, Cirrus had already devoured the entire bone. Or perhaps Axel had spent more time lost in her mind than she thought. Regardless, she knew the lack of food to be the reason for Cirrus’ whining and frantic sniffing. She licked at the floor for crumbs.
Axel frowned, and pity stabbed at her heart and gnawed at her conscience. She looked to her half-eaten bar, her rational mind and her emotional mind at odds with each other. She needed to eat the rest of it, she was still starving and she knew she’d have more, harder labour to do. Splitting the water with Cirrus took enough of a toll on her already terrible health.
One look into Cirrus’ sad, soulful eyes made Axel’s decision for her and she took one more bite of the bar before tossing it to the floor, watching Cirrus consume it with vigour. Axel gave her a genuine, if weak smile.
You need it more than I do.
Ignoring the hunger that still lingered as best she could, Axel slid off the bed and paced around her quarters, digging into her memories in search of something useful. Images danced around in her, showing her places she knew she should have remembered. Her eyes wandered over to the door, and she felt a strong itch to go outside and wander the Valiance until she found the locations her mind shared with her.
She stopped pacing around after a few minutes and looked at Cirrus, who was now soundly asleep on the floor. She didn’t have the heart to wake her, but she also didn’t want to leave her behind. The idea of Cirrus waking up to find herself alone formed a pit in Axel’s stomach, and even though she wasn’t tired anymore she laid back down on her bed and closed her eyes. She’d wait for Cirrus to wake.
That also left her alone with her thoughts, and she hoped she didn’t drift into sleep because she didn’t want to see what her dreams might make of those thoughts. She looked at the wall, her fingers twitching. She needed to get her mind off of the mechs, but alas her mind wouldn’t let go of those thoughts.
She laid there for awhile, doing her best to growl in her throat when the thoughts became much more obsessive. She slid off her bed and began pacing around, the sound of her boots against the metal floor overwhelming her hearing. She slowed down, the images in her mind gradually piecing themselves together like a puzzle. She stopped for a moment, her muscles tensing. She needed to see it. She needed to see it.
A pathetic whine that wanted to be a frustrated scream escaped her throat before she stop it, and she winced from the pain the involuntary effort caused. She buried her face in her hands and stood there, waiting for the sting to end.
When it did, she uncovered her face and looked down at Cirrus, the golden dog still locked in a deep, peaceful sleep. Axel let herself smile and lowered herself to sit crosslegged on the floor. She reached her hand out to rest it on Cirrus’ back, stroking her fur.
You’ve been with me for a long time, you know. I remember when I found you… I was just a kid and you were just a puppy. I had never seen anything like you before, only mechs based on dogs.
Cirrus groaned and stretched, her eyes cracking open just enough for her to see Axel. She yawned and stood up, closing the distance between Axel and herself and then plopping herself right back on the floor, resting her head on Axel’s lap.
Another smile graced Axel’s lips after a moment of subdued surprise. She continued to gently stroke Cirrus’ fear, listening to the sound of the dog’s breathing and watching the gentle rise and fall of her chest. Her thoughts, for the moment, drifting away from the mechs and settling on Cirrus herself, and then animals in general.
She thought of the plants in the environmental control complex she’d worked in. She tried to imagine a world full of plants, full of green, and full of animals. A world where oceans hadn’t run dry.
What a world that would be.
Stuff will actually happen in the next chapter I promise.