[Chap 2] Trouble Brewing

Jaylin retrieved his phone from the table and accepted the reply prompt under Amara’s message notification. For every passing minute that he didn’t reply, he would receive an earful of scolding upon his already afflicted ears.

<{Jaylin, are you okay, have you dressed?}

{Soon, just ate.}>

<{What did you eat?}

{Ramen.}>

<{I’ll prepare lunch for you then.}

{Thanks.}>

<{Did you just shower?}

{Yes.}>

<{Can I have a pic ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°) ?}

{Bye.}>

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<{Haha, see you later then. <3}

Jaylin sighed. Amara was very unpredictable. One minute she could be authoritative and rebuking, another moment she could be loving, caring or even teasing. However, she was his only color in his bleak, mundane life.

Glancing at the time on his phone screen, Jaylin realized that it was currently 12:37 PM. He quickly washed up the dishes and kitchen utensils before heading back to the bedroom to dress. While Jaylin was opening the door of the wardrobe, it made creaking sounds as if it was an ancient treasure chest. It certainly met the criteria of being old and rickety but inside, there were no treasures to behold.

Despite achieving the rare opportunity to become one of the few candidates to receive the A.I Chip, he didn’t even have formal clothing to attend the occasion. He only had a few hoodies, T-shirts, and jeans of which most were ripped— naturally.

His college expenses were handled by his scholarships while Amara would help him with living expenses from time to time. Her family was upset about her wasting their money on a destitute, but upon reviewing his accomplishments, especially in academics, they tolerated.

Considering Jaylin’s personality, it was already hard for him to accept a girl’s money so asking her to buy him a suit was out of the question. He just had to endure, like past like present.

Jaylin sported a hoodie which schemed the majesty of a nebula, along with glossy-black jeans and sneakers. This was his best set of clothing. It was not worn since it was a little too showy in opposition with his cold and restrained character. Since today was special, he had to make an exception and make do with what he had.

After emptying the books and school equipment out of the sling bag hung across the chair, he threw in a camera, power bank, charger, earphones, his ID card, and some other stuff. Jaylin then stuck his hand under the bed’s mattress and pulled out a black wallet. After examining its contents, he tucked it deep into his pocket like some precious treasure.

That wallet contained most of the money he saved during his part-time jobs while in college. Since Amara had always treated him so well, why must he be stingy? He would buy her something nice today.

After checking his phone’s time again, he pushed it in another pocket. It was currently 12:45 PM, meaning he only had fifteen minutes left to arrive at the ATDR.

After making sure he had everything, Jaylin slightly opened the door, allowing a strand of dim sunlight to speed along the floor before hopping onto the framed portrait of his mother and sister. The light reflecting off the portrait made his mother’s smile ever so vivid, directly soothing Jaylin’s cold heart.

Suddenly the ray of sunlight started to flicker. Jaylin curiously glanced outside and saw slightly grey clouds gradually populating the sky.

Rain clouds? Wasn’t it just warm and sunny a moment ago?

The flickering strand of sunlight eventually got strangled and faded away, seemingly taking even the normal luster of the portrait away with it. For some unknown reason, Jaylin felt a subtle feeling of imminent crisis and dread welling up within him. However, it was soon frozen and shattered by his ice-cold heart.

After returning inside to fetch a small umbrella, Jaylin exited the apartment building and was welcomed by the gentle waving of the wild grass leaves. The wind caressed Jaylin’s face and his black hair danced about.

Jaylin pulled the hood over his face and set on his way, his shadow constantly flickering in and out of existence.

* * *

A man was sitting in a holding cell, resting his head on the back of his hands. His foot was a blur as it repeatedly stomped the ground in agitation. The man had a scrawny body with a short mohawk hairstyle atop his head. His face looked menacing, akin to a hostile fowl that was ready to pounce.

As the man was about to get up and rant about the holdup, three guards armed with tasers, handcuffs, and pistols walked in front of the cell gates. The guard in the middle took out a key ring to open the cell while the others stood on either side, right hands on their pistols.

A clanking sound was heard as the metal gates slid open. The guards escorted the man out of the holding area and into an empty hall. A huge metal door was located up ahead beside which two more guards were stationed.

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The man acted like he didn’t see the two guards and seemed entranced by the faint light piercing through the door.

After looking through what seemed like a list and searching the man’s body and belongings, one of the two guards unlatched numerous bolts before opening the metal doors. Instantly, fresh, warm air sped through the doorway and seemed to have slapped the man across the face. He cocked his head upward and croaked like a rooster that had just seen the light of day.

A smile crept up his menacing face as he stepped down the stairs. The guards gestured for him to head over to the prisoner transport van in which various other inmates were sitting. Some were excited while others were calm and expressionless.

The man’s menacing atmosphere attracted the other inmates’ attention as he sat amongst them in the back of the van. As a guard was heading over to close the van’s rear doors, the man gurgled some phlegm in the back of his throat before spitting it out with advanced proficiency.

The spit carried a swift gust of wind with it as it sped over the guard’s shoulder before landing behind him, simmering in his shadow.

The man made a burst of crooked laughter, “Oops, sorry ’bout dat. The air in dat place was jus’ so foul and stale I gotta vent it ya know. Watcha gonna do, lock me up again for assault? See mah spit over dere? Arrest it; I didn’t touch you. Kekeke.” The man chuckled and spread his hands like an innocent child.

The inmates, even the usually expressionless ones all showed a look of incredulity on their faces.

What the hell is wrong with this guy? He-he actually spat at a guard. He’s crazy!

The guard’s sunglasses followed the movement of his eyebrow as it moved upward. Surprisingly, the guard just shook his head before slamming the doors shut, causing the whole van to tremble.

Tch, coward.

The man then looked at the inmates frozen in shock, leisurely crossed his legs and said, “Why pree? You guys gay or somet’n?”

The van’s engine started and the prison’s main gates slowly slid open, revealing a straight, smooth road stretching across the desolate land, leading towards the city in the far horizon. As the van sped through the opened gates, leaving the high towers and fences far behind, the man cooly looked through the barred windows.

His mouth tilted upwards, “Whatever, I guess staying in dat place for too long truly bends a man’s path. T’ank god for still being straight. Watch out, cuz I’m a free man again. I’m comin’ b*tches! Kekeke.”

* * *

A yellow bus crept up a roadside before coming to a standstill beside the bus stop. The door automatically opened and a youth stepped down. The door then closed behind him and the bus drove off, carrying a flurry of dust and smoke with it which blew his hood off, revealing Jaylin’s typically apathetic contours.

In front of Jaylin was a huge, magnificent-looking building surrounded by a massive yard filled with greenery and flowers. When Jaylin walked within a certain distance of the huge gate, a robotic prompt sounded from a speaker located on the wall, “Please state your name and purpose of visit.”

Jaylin calmly said, “Jaylin Channing, one of five chosen candidates for the A.C.E program.”

Suddenly, Jaylin got the feeling that he was being watched. He looked over and saw that a bird was staring at him from a faraway wall. From afar it looked normal, but if one looked closer they could see camera lenses inside the bird’s eyes, steadily adjusting to his face.

The bird flapped its wings and flew away, after which the robotic voice replied, “You may enter. Welcome to The Agency of Technological Development and Robotics.”

Immediately, the huge gate slowly opened after which a small, self-driving car drove up. It opened its door as if motioning Jaylin to get in. Without hesitation, he sat in. The door closed and the seatbelt shot across his chest as if it had a mind of its own, strapping him inside.

Instantly, the car started cruising along the concrete path towards the building. Jaylin was preparing to get off as the car neared the set of stairs leading to the entrance. Surprisingly, the car took a detour and went around to the side of the building where a secret passage opened. The car drove down the ramp of the passage which closed up almost immediately after the car disappeared within.

The headlights chased away the darkness, revealing a maze-like passage filled with numerous twists and turns. At every sharp turn, it was like the car was screaming in excitement as it drifted. Soon, Jaylin lost track of how many turns and screeches he heard.

After a final turn, the car’s headlights were engulfed by an even brighter light located further ahead of the passage. Just when the car started speeding up, he saw a dip in the road. Jaylin had a tingly sensation in his abdomen.

A bad feeling?

The car dove into the dip before erupting like a rocket, forming a parabola in the air as it flew through the exit and smashed into the ground. After a long, dramatic skid, the car came to a halt.

Before the door could even automatically open, it was abruptly kicked open by Jaylin who staggered out. It was when his eyes refocused that he realized several people were staring at him.

He quickly regained his usually calm demeanor before offering a polite greeting. There were eight people in total. Four were of the same age as him and consisted of a girl and three boys, each having a middle-aged man sitting beside them.

The car started driving again and lined up behind eight other cars located in a corner.

Seems that I’m not the only victim…

Jaylin walked over to where the others were and took a seat. While sitting he heard a slight snort coming from one of the middle-aged men. A contemptuous and aloof air started to surround the group, clashing with Jaylin’s uncaring yet fearless demeanor.

It wasn’t hard for him to figure it out. Everyone here was dressed neatly in their expensive attires except him. The other candidates were most likely from influential or rich backgrounds and had likely done their researches on each other.

They must have dug up his history and background and found out everything about his past: The fall of his family, how he was abused by his father, how his mother moved out and became a prostitute, how his parents killed each other, how he was now a poor boy who just happened to have some smarts.

Jaylin could feel one of the middle-aged men staring coldly at him. Trouble was brewing. Jaylin thought back to the last words of his mother: ‘Sorry. Live on’.

Sorry: I’m sorry for neglecting you and not fulfilling my duty as a mother earlier; Live on: You have a strong heart. Grasp your destiny in your own hands and find happiness. Find something to live for. Just three words, yet filled with profound meaning and emotions.

Taking out his phone from his pocket, he looked at the time.

12:58 uh?

Well, even if my fate will be a tragic one, in the end, I’ll at least be a thorn in yours.

Jaylin stared directly into the middle-aged man’s eyes, his gaze so cold it burned, “Tell me. Do I look that attractive?”

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