Bundled up to look bulky and wearing a fake beard, Evan Crane swaggered toward the gates of Erickson Steel. In addition to his disguise, Evan also prided himself on maintaining a constant cloud of smoke around his face. With the extra layer of screening, it was practically impossible for anyone to discern his exact identity.
Even for the paranoid Erickson Steel, Evan sneered. Above him along the road to the front gates, several drones hovered about, scanning every individual who approached. Evan and his companion were walking calmly behind a government humvee, completely inconspicuous in the busy road filled with dozens of people going in each direction.
In fact, Evan felt a weird squeeze in his heart as he considered the busy road from the train terminal to the factory proper. He had secretly hoped that the decision to pull all branches from the varying cities around New Earth would have severely diminished Erickson Steel’s business prospects. The added difficulty of traveling to acquire their metal would win them no favor.
The road into the Erickson Steel complex was incredibly busy. More than that, on the crowded Path Evan saw no fewer than five Orders represented. To add a slightly festive air, the road into Erickson Steel was bordered with a market of street stalls. Most of their wares were fresh produce and little knick-knacks, but there were also stalls run by relatively inexperienced smelters as a way to sell their experiments rather cheaply.
Grinding his teeth, Evan attempted to keep his spasming jaw from revealing him to the drones watching above. He reached out and lightly touched the arm of his companion. “Slow down. Let’s let the government vehicle arrive first. I want to see the fear on their faces when they understand the news.”
The figure next to Evan was a scarred man who called himself Thirteen. Although his skin was dirty and rough, his teeth were almost immaculately white when he smiled. “Heh, alright. But no matter what happens, you can’t back out on your end of the deal. I’m going to have quite a lot of fun in Erickson Steel.”
Evan’s smile was sharp. After taking a long drag to finish his cigarette, Evan dropped it on the ground and stomped it out. “Don’t you worry. The more damage you can do to Erickson Steel-”
Both men froze as a drone zoomed down toward their position. Evan’s immediate reaction was to draw his pistol and blow the piece of garbage out of the sky, but he managed to suppress that impulse to an ineffectual twitch of his right hand. Then he began to sweat. Did the drones have enhanced listening capacity? If they did-
By this point, all of Erickson Steel would know that he was antagonistic against them. Even if all they did was lock him up for several days, they would undoubtedly realize he was disguised. And then-
A metallic voice echoed out of the floating drone. “Please sirs, allow me to take your refuse.”
The drone floated down toward the ground. An aperture slid open and a small arm stretched out to take the cigarette butt. Then the drone floated back up above the road. Both men were tight-lipped as they watched it retreat. They exchanged a wary glance.
Before either could say anything, the government humvee ahead of them arrived at the gate of Erickson Steel. After the car was parked, a tall man got out of the backseat. His gaze was as pitiless as a hawk as he scanned the surroundings.
The several guards at the wide open gates hurriedly straightened. “Colonel Maude!”
“Mmm,” The Colonel hummed softly while continuing to scan the surrounding area. One of the guards at Erickson Steel turned around and spoke into his watch, and within a minute a rather tough looking older woman hurried out. It was clear she was someone relatively important in the structure of Erickson Steel.
“Colonel Maude,” She said with a smile. “To what do we owe the pleasure of a visit from our government liaison? Is there a problem with the previous batch of steel?”
“There were… no problems.” The Colonel said stonily. His eyes finally ceased their roving and settled on the older woman. “But there is something pressing on which we need to speak.”
“Please, follow me. We can discuss the details in a more comfortable-”
“Actually,” The Colonel interrupted. “I believe it is only fair that we talk about it here. After all, I have news that impacts everyone who has traveled today to Erickson Steel. To hide this news… would be a disservice to them.”
The fact that the government humvee had stopped and an important military figure stepped out of it hadn’t escaped the notice of the almost two hundred travelers who were briefly dallying at the outdoor fair to amuse themselves. And when the Colonel said that he came with news that impacted them all, they all looked up from the stalls and focused on the Colonel standing in the middle of the road.
The Colonel coughed lightly into his hand and then said. “Everyone… I’m afraid you must return this time without being able to purchase steel. Due to the dangerous new threat coming out of Zone Eleven, Congress has determined that military projects need to be emphasized beyond all others. Therefore…”
The Colonel turned back to the older woman. “...we will require the delivery of the entire amount of promised steel now, rather than over the course of the rest of the month. Unfortunately… we have no other choice. Some of the monsters wandering into our heartlands are Level 70.”
Behind them on the road, Evan Crane’s mouth curled into a smile. This was the first of the three-part plan that Senator Heathridge had come up with to suffocate Erickson Steel. The danger was exaggerated, of course, but there were truly isolated incidents of high-Level monsters wandering down from Zone Eleven.
“And if Erickson Steel can’t fulfill the order immediately… We will be forced to find other suppliers. The need is immediate.” The Colonel said ominously. Around the fair, various individuals looked at each other with serious expressions. They had understood that recently the government had been applying additional pressure to Erickson Steel, but to see it so blatantly and publically done…
Perhaps Erickson Steel wouldn’t exist for very much longer.
Even more intoxicating than nicotine, Evan inhaled that confused and hesitant scent that filled the air. With Erickson Steel’s monthly order from the government, and as this is only the 18th of the month, what the government is demanding is a little over one-third of their total order immediately. An order that generally takes Erickson Steel ten days to produce.
Even if you have enough stock on hand to satisfy the Colonel… Evan’s gaze when to the representatives of other business ventures and the Orders that were present. You will be forced to disappoint someone. I don’t think business will be quite so booming tomorrow. Will it, Erickson Steel?
The older woman blinked.
Then she thought about it and nodded firmly. “Oh, that’s perfect. We can do that.”
“I-” The Colonel began, but now it was his turn to blink. “What?”
The woman’s smile brightened further and she nodded emphatically. “Actually, we currently have a surplus of stock. The founder of the company did a forging demonstration yesterday, so all of our best workers have been producing metal frantically to try and imitate his technique. We honestly have more metal than we know what to do with! Your arrival couldn’t be better timed. Colonel, if you’ll just follow me…”
Then the woman froze. “Ah, there is one thing.”
Finally, the predatory air returned to the Colonel’s eyes. As Senator Heathridge had motivated him to find any possible excuse to change suppliers, even if just for a short while, the Colonel seized this chance. “Oh?”
The woman shook her head helplessly. “Because of the guidance of Erickson Steel’s founder, some of these new metals are even more high-performing than our regular products. As such, the Colonel may require more powerful tools in order to create drones with them… but we have had to deal with those same problems recently as well, so you are in good hands.”
The older woman led away a befuddled Colonel. Evan jerked his chin sharply at Thirteen, who nodded and discretely proceeded into the Erickson Steel compound. Evan retreated some distance away and then called Senator Heathridge.
After hearing Evan’s explanation of what had occurred, Senator Heathridge was pensive. “To think they had prepared this so far in advance… no, the story about the founder is probably just PR. They must have been secretly working on a new product line for months now… well, no matter. Did Thirteen enter successfully?”
“Yes, all according to plan.” Evan twitched slightly. He was craving a cigarette but was too wary of the drones above to smoke another one.
“Then we just wait,” Senator said gently. “Soon they will be begging for our help.”
Thirteen sat on a rooftop, grinning down at the peaceful Erickson Steel campus below.
Thirteen’s given name was Theodore, but he had always hated that name. So much so that he had begun acting out at a young age, resentful of his parent’s overbearing and controlling nature. It had all been rather harmless transgressions until he had run a red light while drunk and killed a couple while turning their smart car into a crumpled tin can.
When the System arrived, Thirteen had been halfway through a ten-year sentence. And when chaos descended, he finally found himself free to share that horrible venom that had bubbling in his chest for five years.
Now, Thirteen was employed by the rich to make trouble for each other. Generally, no one ever requested any deaths, but neither did they say anything when bodies inevitably cropped up. Thirteen’s smile expanded. And now, this whole company is mine to play with-
Thirteen spun around, finding him face to face with a lithe young woman with brilliant mahogany hair and sharp eyes. She was one of the prettiest women that Thirteen had ever seen, and she was currently sniffing him. And Thirteen was immediately floored that she had been able to arrive behind him without him noticing.
But that body… Thirteen didn’t even bother to pay attention to her expression, just gazing at her chest and hips greedily. Seeing that she was a woman, all of his earlier tension evaporated. He licked his lips. After I’m done with her…
“I was rather excited when I smelled blood,” The woman whined. “But to think it’s just a pesky mosquito-like you. Better that I don’t let you wander around though…”
Thirteen didn’t even see the spear strike that slit his throat.