When Evan Crane’s phone rang, he was already in such a foul mood that he chewed in frustration on the end of his cigar rather than answering. He didn’t even glance at the terminal.
How come I have heard nothing from the Zone Transportation Board? And Erickson Steel’s chilly rejection of the offer of Skill Engraving is ridiculous! How could they not covet this knowledge! Did they possibly not believe that we-
While Evan’s mind was racing, the second ring dragged his attention over to the monitor of his phone. Instantly, he paled and scrambled to pick up the receiver.
“Ahem, Senator Heathridge, to what do I owe this pleasure?” Evan coughed out, inwardly glad that the other party couldn’t sense that his words contained half a lung of cigar smoke. Still, he frantically waved his hand, worried that the Senator would have some way of noticing.
“Because you fucked up. That bitch Tatiana really pulled a fast one on ya.” The cool response came. “I’d wondered why they were being so passive the past few months… but to think they had taken such a long view of things… Basically, the ZTB is on their side now.”
“What?! The amount of money I pay them is-” Evan fumed, but he was immediately cut off.
“-is a fraction of what they gained from Erickson Steel, from what I’m told.” Senator Heathridge’s clipped and direct tone didn’t sound angry, but just like he was calmly reading a story from the front page of a newspaper. “Apparently, the new train car was provided by Erickson Steel, and the engraving used to power it is ingenious. Impossibly so. After connecting to the main transit system, this new care actually added energy. A significant amount of energy. So much so that the ZTB will rubber stamp Erickson Steel’s activities so long as they are allowed to inspect the engravings.”
That gave Evan Crane pause. Erickson Steel was sitting on an engraving that could revolutionize the Manatech railway system? Damnit, if he could only control the company and look at its secrets, with his money-
Releasing a calming breath, Evan Crane said, “Then we bring an official inquiry. Force the ZTB’s hand.”
There was a chuckle on the other end of the line. “Didn’t I already say it? You fucked up. But I’ll indulge you. What happens if we bring an official congressional inquiry?”
“We have the votes,” Evan said through gritted teeth. It was hard to take Heathridge’s casual arrogance, even now. But Evan Crane would still be a two-bit criminal if the Senator hadn’t noticed his potential and given him some seed money. “Even if they get Firefly and his cronies, we-”
Senator Heathridge sighed. “You truly don’t understand anything but money. I’m not worried about Firefly; I have him distracted with other matters. I’m worried about the ZTB.”
“The only thing ZTB can do is act within the manatech railways,” Evan said dismissively. “Other than that, their only power-”
Then Evan froze.
“…yes, their only other power is to unilaterally enter into a partnership with a foreign power and delegate to that foreign power the ability to expand the rails in their own territory,” Senator Heathridge said softly. “A law that was passed specifically with Donnyton in mind. A law that includes the ability for the designated foreign power to give out a not insignificant number of Tier I citizenships.
“And you have been pushing the foreign angle very hard against Erickson Steel. They are subject to numerous taxes due to that designation. It would be politically thorny, but it is difficult for me to see how we could win on both the tax issue and whether they could be designated a foreign power. We’ve already committed too much to altering the public perception of them.”
Evan blankly looked down at his desk.
Senator Heathridge continued to speak. “Whoever came up with this plan… well, it’s genius. I wonder how long they struggled in secret to create an Engraving that they were confident enough to tempt the ZTB with… well, no matter. The mastermind clearly has given this situation a lot of thought. Undoubtedly this is the culmination of months of preparation. And this might not yet be their final move.”
For a second, Senator Heathridge was silent. When he spoke again, his voice was filled with urgency. “We cannot let them control the tempo of this. It’s time to put our final plan into effect. Can I count on some extra cash from you?”
“…of course…” Evan Crane said, a vein in his temple spasming.
“Good. Send the funds to the usual place. And Crane… don’t take any more actions on your own.” Then the line went dead.
For several seconds, Evan Crane stared at the door, sincerely hoping that a subordinate would come through with bad news so he would have the excuse to put his cigar out in someone’s eye. Then, with his jaw still painfully clenched from this humiliation, Evan began making a few calls.
Every time someone picked up the phone as he called and answered ingratiating, Evan Crane grew a little bit more bitter. Because he knew, deep down, that the only reason these powerful people took his calls was due to his association with Senator Heathridge. Without his power, Evan Crane was nothing.
But that wouldn’t last. Once Evan Crane was the CEO of Erickson Steel…
Even if I have to go myself… I will get to the bottom of Erickson Steel and devour all of its secrets…!
The sky was laid out before Vye like a painting, the mid-day sun peeking out behind towering storm clouds, sending brilliant rays of sunlight down to gleam against the stone and metal walls of Erickson Steel. Behind those rays, the long wall of black clouds cast shadows across the surrounding forest, warning of the rain to come.
Vye stood on top of the radio tower that served as a crown of sorts for the headquarters, gripping against the metal latticework of the tower and leaning out to look over everything in the surrounding area. The people were ants and the concrete city was only a portion of what was below her. Such was the height of the headquarters and then the additional height of the tower that Vye could see around for miles and miles.
Beyond the tin and plastic roofs, there was dirt and mines in the trough below. Beyond that was the trees, and beyond that was the river snaking South to Lake Apollo. It was a clear enough day that the hint of the newly revealed mountains to the West was visible. The breeze was strong at this height, but that was the point.
When Vye was up here, she could imagine that she wasn’t trapped in this strange place. The System’s implicit threat fell away. She could imagine that she had seized the strength to control her destiny and was moving throughout the world. She felt independent. The wind spiraled around her limbs, comforting her, whispering of all the places that it had traveled through to reach her.
Vye closed her eyes and listened. It was only in moments like this that she was truly happy-
As a crackling cacophony emerged from the speakers mounted along the roofs of the surrounding factories, Vye was so shocked that she almost reflexively released her grip and toppled off the tower. Hastily, she grabbed onto the metal and calmed her breathing. Falling from this height would have been bad; the twenty or so meters down to the roof itself would have given her enough time to gather enough momentum to punch through the roof.
Which, in turn, would have revealed that Vye’s lunch break had seen her fleeing from the foundry floor. Quick as a monkey, Vye zipped down the tower and landed on the roof. Just as she had dashed to the side and was beginning to scale down the gothic exterior on the side of the building, Tatiana’s voice began to boom out from the speakers.
…does she know I’m up here…?
Vye thought guilty, but then she shook her head. It seemed that all of the speakers in the whole damn factory were activating. Surely Tatiana wouldn’t mobilize the entire speaker system in order to track down a single wandering assistant…? Surely…
Vye gulped audibly.
“…Ahem…” Tatiana’s voice boomed outward. Then Vye could practically hear the woman plastering a smile across her own face before she spoke. “Greetings, everyone! I just wanted to make a quick announcement. The founder of Erickson Steel, Randidly Ghosthound, will be performing a forging demonstration in ten minutes. He will be assisted by our three most talented smelters, and the whole process will be broadcast on the large screens in the assembly halls. I encourage everyone to attend and watch the process.
“I repeat…” Tatiana’s electronically spread voice boomed out again, repeating her message. Vye ignored it and landed on the ground. For several seconds, Vye simply grinned and savored the feeling of release as her earlier anxiety dissipated like mist beneath the beat of a strong midday sun. Then her face twisted into a frown.
A demonstration, huh…
Inwardly, she was extremely torn. Although she was interested in Randidly Ghosthound and his experiences in other places, Vye truly didn’t have much interest in forging itself. If the focus was supposed to be on forging, it likely wasn’t worth her time… And everyone would be gathered in the assembly halls to watch…
“Do you have any proof?”
“Nope, all I have is my word.” He had said, his emerald eyes glowing with easy confidence. It was a gaze that said: can’t you see it? My what proof do I really need?
Rather, his gaze seemed to suggest with not a little amusement, ‘which one of us is truly being tested here, I wonder?’
Vye gritted her teeth and forced her feet to carry her toward the assembly hall. In their prior two meetings, Randidly Ghosthound had seemed profoundly… ordinary. In the past, Vye had met powerful individuals from Zone 1 who seemed to ooze authority. Randidly Ghosthound didn’t possess that. But he possessed accomplishments that the people that Vye considered powerful couldn’t even dream of. Even if it was just to check whether the stories or the rather bland impression she had was true, Vye would go and watch at least the beginning of the demonstration.
Was that air about him just the circumstances…?
Vye wondered. Her eyes flashed.
If it was… then in this demonstration, I’ll be able to see what he really is like. The man who has the power to control his own destiny, Randidly Ghosthound…
Because of her status, Vye possessed keys to head up to the administrative box in the central assembly hall. When she arrived, she was surprised to find the relatively spacious room already had about thirty people standing around, waiting for the demonstration to begin. Below, in the floor of the assembly hall proper, bodies were packed like sardines.
As she looked down at the crowd, each tiny head peered upward at the screen which was displaying a relatively basic large forging room. Almost unwilling, Vye followed their gaze and looked at the screen. Although the camera used changed frequently, giving the watchers a complete understanding of the contents of a room, what she saw there was relatively without suspense.
Five people stood within the room. Randidly Ghosthound and one of the loveliest women Vye had ever seen were talking quietly in the corner. At the other side of the room, seemingly too intimidated to approach, two men and a woman stood stiffly in silence. All three were wearing heavy leather aprons and gloves.
Vye recognized the three as the best forgers Erickson Steel had. And it was clear that they would be working in the function of assistants for the demonstration.
Minutes slowly crept past. Around her, Vye could hear the whispers of other high ranking members of Erickson Steel, but she didn’t bother to join the speculations. She simply looked at the screen. Even through the filter of technology, Vye could immediately tell something was different about Randidly Ghosthound. But maybe that was just the fact Vye was hyper-aware of how many people were gazing up at him with worship and envy in their eyes.
Yet Vye couldn’t shake the feeling that something had truly changed. Where he had been… almost blank before, now he seemed peaceful. She had seen him calm and also in pain, but this was not related to either of those. His determined gaze, his furrowed brow…
With an abruptness that shocked Vye, Randidly looked up and stared directly at the camera. For a split second, she had a deep fear that he was looking directly at her. His eyes were so, so emerald. Then Randidly smiled, and the reality of her situation as one amongst the crowd hit her like a bowling ball to the chest.
Just like always, I’m here, watching…
Vye thought with a sigh.
“Anyways,” Randidly Ghosthound said, drawing the attention of the all watching to himself. “I think it’s time we begin. I’ll try and keep this brief, so I’ll be explaining while I work. Today, I want to impress upon everyone the uses of an image while creating metal. If Erickson Steel is going to be the best metal manufacturer in the world, this is the Path.”