Sherman Hyde was not in a good mood. As far as he was concerned, that was perfectly reasonable. One would have to be a complete lunatic to not be in a terrible mood given the situation. He aimlessly stormed his way through the Travers Innovations and Modern Applied Technologies corporate headquarters. He had no particular destination in mind – he just felt a need to storm. Most of his attention was on the various charts and news reports and important correspondences that were holographically projected into the air in front of him. Somehow, though, he still managed to deftly avoid colliding with any of the myriad other people who were also running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Which, to an outside observer, was impressive; Hyde was not a particularly small man. There were taller people, to be sure, but he was heavyset and stocky. And, being a Rhino, he also had a pair of somewhat intimidating horns sprouting from his face that one would think would obscure his vision, as would the pair of sunglasses he was wearing in spite of being inside and also on the Ring.
But, somehow, that wasn’t the case. He avoided every potential collision with precision. And there were quite a lot of potential collisions. Thanks to the aforementioned holograms (designed by Dr. Travers herself), Hyde could work from just about anywhere in the world, but just about everyone else who was running through the halls was significantly less aimless than he was. Everyone was busy. Everyone had places to be. Of course they did, after what had just happened in Locksmouth.
Hyde only came to a stop when he happened to encounter Ellen Maclean, head of HR. And then only because she specifically spoke to him. “Hyde!”
“Tell me you have good news.”
Ellen grimaced, making it clear to Hyde that no, she did not have good news. “It... could have been much worse.”
Hyde sighed, somewhat unsurprised, before idly gesturing with his head. “Come on, let’s go somewhere out of the way.” They were currently taking up a significant percentage of the hallway, and so quickly ducked into a nearby cafeteria. Ellen, like Hyde, was not exactly a small person. Unlike Hyde, she was tall, extremely so – a good seven and a half feet of shark. And she was originally from Anchorsway, so of course she was also extremely wide. Busty and curvy, built like a mother, which was accentuated by the frilly apron she was wearing. Slightly less professional than Hyde’s own tan coloured suit, but he didn’t particularly care. She was good enough at her job that she didn’t particularly need to wear a suit.
Besides, Ellen in an apron was a sign that she’d been baking. It was her standard means of relieving stress, and Hyde wasn’t going to complain about the possibility of Ellen’s famous chocolate chip cookies. A single bright spot in this mountain of shit he found himself in. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine,” Ellen said. “Just... worried.”
“Still no word from them?”
“Not on my end at least. And this is on top of everything else that’s gone wrong.”
“The Locksmouth Fabricatory is a complete write-off, at least for now.”
“That isn’t what I heard.”
“That Osoth person used it as a base. It isn’t beyond repair, but it’s also not in the best condition. Right now it’s all they can manage to make what’s needed to repair the damage to the town as a whole.”
“You’re telling me.” Rather than having one big factory on the Ring, Travers Innovations instead rented space in Fabricatories all over the world. It was generally more convenient, but it also meant that the Locksmouth branch going down in flames took the Anchorsway market down with it, along with Harbington and Esterwood and several other, more distant cities. “I suppose the bright side is that the population density is low enough that we can just get away with amping up production elsewhere to cover the slack. The more important thing is we’ve also lost a significant amount of manpower.”
Ellen clicked her tongue. “Oh dear.”
“Dr. Travers isn’t going to be pleased about that.”
“No. No she’s not.” Ellen groaned, taking a seat on a flimsy folding chair that was far too small for her. It creaked and groaned under her weight, though she didn’t seem to care much. “Hyde, what are we supposed to do.”
“What we always do. This is hardly the first logistical problem we’ve had to deal with.”
“I know, I know.” Ellen sighed again. “I’m going to have to do some recruiting. Somehow. Who knows where we’re going to find any prospective employees.”
“I’m sure that Dr. Travers has a plan.”
“She always does.” Ellen leaned back in her chair. “That woman always seems to be at least one step ahead of just about everything. I wouldn’t be surprised if she saw this coming somehow and has contingencies already lined up.”
“If she had seen this coming, it wouldn’t have happened,” Hyde replied with unshakable confidence.
“I suppose you’re right.”
Of course, all of this was dancing around the proverbial elephant in the room. The real reason that the Locksmouth incident had hit Travers Innovations so hard.Neither of them particularly wanted to talk about it, but the subject had to be broached eventually. “I wish we at least knew something,” Ellen said. “It’s been more than a week, you’d think we’d know if they were okay one way or the other.”
“Hrm.” It was all that Hyde could think to say. He was as worried about them as Ellen. “We just have to trust in Miss Corven’s abilities as a bodyguard.”
“She’s never really had to demonstrate them before.”
“You’ve seen her, Ellen,” Hyde said tersely. “The woman’s bigger than you. She can take care of herself.”
“Against normal humans, yes. But put up against body-snatching aliens and giant monsters? You can’t blame me for being worried for them.”
“For now, all we can do is keep waiting.”
“I’m tired of waiting.”
“We’re all tired of waiting.”
As if on cue, Hyde’s PET let out a small ping that indicated he’d received a message. And, given who it was from, he wouldn’t be surprised if it was on cue.
“Sherman, we need to talk. Come to my office as soon as possible. Bring Ellen with you. Consider this an official meeting of the Board.”
Hyde sighed at the use of his first name. He’d told Dr Travers a million times to just call him Hyde and yet she still insisted on not doing that. “You heard her,” he said as Ellen pulled herself up out of the poor, struggling chair. With a silent nod, the two of them left without further conversation.
After all, if this was an official Board meeting, then it wouldn’t do to delay.
The President’s office was large and opulent. That had been Sherman’s doing. If she’d had her way, she wouldn’t have an office at all. She’d never been one for keeping up appearances, after all. But, well, Sherman had been insistent. She was the head of one of the world’s biggest engineering firms and needed to look the part.
Naturally, most of the space had been repurposed into her personal workshop. She’d never been one for the business side of things – that was why she had Sherman, after all. All she cared about was making things. She was an engineer, so of course she used her office to engineer things. Her second in command and her head of HR had to carefully manoeuvre their way around discarded plasma cutters and sheets of metal and circuit boards and half-completed inventions to get to their employer’s desk, where Dr. Travers was waiting for them.
“Ah, you’re here. Good, we can get started.” Dr. Travers was not nearly as thickset as Ellen – though, admittedly, Ellen had an unfair advantage in the form of the Soak. Still, she was no slouch. A decent bustline and frankly more than decent thighs, coupled with a waspish waist. Or a mantisish waist, to be more accurate. Orchid mantis to be more specific. Everything about her was extremely pink, to some degree or another. Pale pink skin, darker pink hair, and even darker eyes. She was currently wearing her work clothes, which were also mostly various shades of pink. It was lightweight and skintight, but also extremely durable. She spent most of her time working with heavy machinery, so she’d designed her clothing to be almost impenetrable while still being extremely easy to move in. It also had the benefit of showing off her aforementioned figure, though now wasn’t exactly the best time for that. Fun could come later. Right now she had higher priorities.
“Our first order of business,” she said, adjusting her glasses as she stood up. “I have some good news.” She snapped her fingers, causing a holographically projected keyboard to materialize in front of her. Some swift keystrokes later, a full-scale hologram of the Travers Innovations head of security manifested in the centre of the room. The white tiger was the tallest person in the room (sort of), easily eight feet tall, with a prodigious chest and chiselled muscles. To an outsider, she was easily the most intimidating of the four members of the Travers Innovations’ Board. “Maggie got in contact with me. They’re both fine.”
“Oh thank god,” Ellen said with a sigh of relief.
“Yeah, uh. Hi guys!” Maggie Corven said, waving nervously. “Sorry it took me so long to get in contact with you. Our PETs both got fucking smashed by one of the big motherfuckers on, like, day one and I only managed to get replacements now. I would have just headed back the instant we could get out of here, but it’s gonna be a while until the space elevators line up and they kinda roped me into helping with cleanup in the meantime.”
“The important thing is that you’re both alive and well. This is a weight off of all of our chests.”
“Yeah, still.” Maggie shuffled awkwardly, which was almost comical considering how big she was. “I feel bad about not, you know, making sure the boss lady knew her daughter’s okay sooner, you know?”
“Speaking of which, where is she?”
“Sleeping. Kid’s still tuckered out from everything that went down.”
“The important thing is that she’s not hurt, or worse,” Dr. Travers said with a nod. “On to less important business. The, ah, matter of the Locksmouth distribution zone.”
“You have a plan, I assume?” Ellen said.
“I always have a plan, Ellen.” Dr Travers once again made a few quick keystrokes, and Maggie’s hologram shunted slightly to the right to make way for a smaller projection of a dome.
“A small, somewhat backwater municipality nearby Locksmouth.” Maggie’s expression soured slightly. “It’s called Esterwood. It should sound somewhat familiar, I imagine.”
“I don’t like where this is going.”
“There was a small, local incident. A group of teenagers went missing in the local forest for approximately a week. You likely haven’t heard word of it, considering it happened almost exactly concurrently with the troubles in Locksmouth. That’s our opening. We’re going to be breathing new life into the town by opening a new, state of the art Fabricatory there. We’ll have to cannibalize some other branches, but luckily the bulk of the new employees can be imported directly from Locksmouth. Naturally, all of us will have to be present to personally supervise the construction.”
“Hey,” Maggie snapped. “You know very well that ain’t possible. I’m not allowed back there, remember?”
“Margaret,” Dr. Travers said, never once dropping her calm and friendly tone. “Leave that to me. You just do as you’re told.”
“Good girl. That will be all. You all have a lot of work to do regarding the logistics of the new facility, so I won’t keep you here any longer. This isn’t the first time you’ve done something like this, so I expect expedient work.”
Everyone nodded, Maggie’s hologram disappeared while Sherman and Ellen turned and left. Once Dr. Travers was satisfied that she was alone again, she flopped back into her comfortable office chair with a thwump and a sigh. At some point she would tell them the actual reasons she wanted to build a Fabricatory in Esterwood. But until they could all be physically present for a meeting, she didn’t want to take the risk that someone might overhear. This was it. Her chance. She had been waiting for this for years and now it was finally here, and so she was going to take every possible precaution to ensure it proceeded smoothly.
But that could wait. She had other priorities. With another few quick keystrokes, another hologram appeared in the centre of her office. “Sorry for putting you on hold for so long, Mary,” she said. “Something extremely important came up.”
“It’s fine, Linda. You’re an important woman!” Dr. Mary Baas smiled warmly at the sight of her childhood friend. “If anything, I should be apologizing to you for ruining your vacation.”
“Nonsense. You had to help with the search effort, perfectly understandable. Ah, speaking of which, I trust the girls are doing well?”
“Oh. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you knew.”
“It’s my business to know things, Mary.”
Mary sighed. “The girls are fine, for now. They’re in a lot of trouble, but they’re fine.”
“Do you have any idea where they were, out of curiosity?”
“According to the students who found them, they fell into a hole and lost their PETs in the process. Somehow. And they didn’t escape on their own because one of them was injured and they didn’t want to risk making it worse.”
“I see. And you don’t believe them?”
“Of course not. They spent a whole week in a hole and no one found them? The least they could have done is come up with a more plausible lie.”
“I see.” Linda adjusted her glasses, the light catching on them and creating a brief shine that obscured her eyes entirely. “Do you have any suspicions as to the truth?”
“I don’t know, maybe they attempted to walk to Locksmouth?” She sighed with a dejected shrug. “But they absolutely didn’t have enough supplies to last them six days of hiking. And that doesn’t explain why Lars and Vicky are covering for them.”
“Well, I’m sure they have their reasons.”
“I know, I know, but I’m still worried.”
“It’s your job to be worried about them, Mary.”
“Anyway,” Linda said with a smile. “I do have some good news. I’ll be in town again soon!”
“Again?” Mary frowned slightly. “Linda, I know you- we both were looking forward to getting to spend some time together, but you already nearly worked yourself to death clearing up your schedule for the last visit. Please don’t hurt yourself on my account.”
“Ah, but this isn’t on your account. This is business.”
“Don’t tell anyone, as this is supposed to be a secret for now, but there’s a very good chance that Travers Innovations is going to be building a new Fabricatory in Esterwood to replace the Locksmouth branch.”
Mary’s frown turned into a confused grimace. “Are you sure that’s the best plan? Esterwood... isn’t exactly the biggest town in the world.”
“It’s a necessity. The Locksmouth Fabricatory is busy with the repair effort, and in the meantime our employees in the area are out of a job. That’s frankly unacceptable. Esterwood is closeby, and frankly it could use the injection to its economy far more than Anchorsway or Harbington. And I don’t particularly foresee Clarkston being receptive to the idea.” Linda folded all four of her arms on her desk in a matter-of-fact manner. This was the end of the conversation. “We still need to work some things out with the Arbitrators. Ah, speaking of which, how’s Beth?”
“... She’s fine.” Mary continued to grimace. “Listen. Linda. I’d love to keep up the idle chit chat, but I’m sure we both have a lot of work to do.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine,” Linda said, waving dismissively. “I’ve already kept you an inordinate amount of time. We’ll be seeing plenty of each other in the immediate future, I’m sure.”
“Right. It was nice talking with you.”
With that, Mary hung up. Linda sighed. They had been friends for a very, very long time. But that friendship had always been very... superficial. Esterwood wasn’t exactly the most receptive to people who didn’t fit in. And someone like Linda stood absolutely no chance of fitting in. She was too special, though she hated to phrase it like that because it sounded so egotistical. But, well, it was true. She was inventing things almost since she was physically capable of doing so, and that hadn’t sat well with the rest of the city. She’d not had many friends as a child. Really, Mary was the only one. And even then, it had always been more of a friendship of obligation. Mary felt bad for the poor weirdo and so had given her token attention so long as she agreed to try and fit in. Once she moved to the Ring and started to embrace her nature as a tinkerer, the friendship had naturally become increasingly strained, but Linda and Mary both did their best to maintain it anyway out of a sense of obligation.
“... Right. I have work to do.” Linda didn’t particularly want to think about that, and so instead she immersed herself in her research. With another few idle keystrokes she brought it all up in the air in front of her. One small, three paragraph article about the incident with the missing teens – the only real documentation she could find that it had happened at all – along with several pictures of each of the involved teens. Quite an eclectic group, by the looks of them. “Poor kids. I doubt Esterwood is particularly kind to any of you.”
In addition, there was a large collection of much more substantial articles on local folklore, and more specifically on the supposed Ghost that lived in the Woods District. There was also a series of historical research papers that came with some bits and pieces of pre-splice artifacts excavated from beneath the surrounding area of Esterwood. There wasn’t a lot that was useful to her, but that was fine. Linda was smart enough to be able to piece together the gist, at least.
There was something there. In the Woods, beneath the ground. She did not yet know what it was. But there was one thing she did know.
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Okay I lied it's not over yet. There will absolutely be more about these girls and their lives in the far-flung space future of 2541. Consider this a bit of a preview of Volume 2, though I'm not going to be working on it... just yet. Not for lack of wanting to - I need to physically force myself to dedicate November to getting other obligations done before I dive back in to this. Once again, thanks for reading, and I'll see you probably in January-February for The Human Compulsion.