Jacob Lynch leaned back in the mechanical throne rooted behind his desk, feeling the springs and gears inside the chair groaning in protest. “Blasted clockwork,” he thought to himself, “I thought I told those mechaniks to keep those internals greased. Ah well, I’ll worry about it later.” Truth be told, Lynch had more pressing matters on his mind. Leaning back even further and putting his feet up on the shiny surface of his desk, he lit a cigarette and placed it between his lips, casting occasional glances at the speaker mounted in the corner of his desk. “Blast it, why isn’t he here yet?” he thought to himself as he took a draw on the cigarette. The vapors of the smokeweed swirling around his lungs weren’t doing anything to steady his jangling nerves, and his secretary had long since removed the bottle of whiskey and glasses from his office. Time seemed to slow down as he was waiting, and the steadily pounding and chugging noises of a nearby power plant began to interrupt his thoughts as his mind drifted. “This could be a new age for Imperial,” he thought to himself, “The cost be blasted, once he gets here, everything will change.” The crackling from the speaker on his desk made him jump, inadvertently spitting his cigarette into a cold cup of coffee sitting on his desk with a loud hiss. “Curse whoever did that!” he blurted out, and then caught himself, depressing the button on the speaker with a finger. “Jacob Lynch speaking,” he said, trying to disguise the fact that he had been daydreaming. “Mister Lynch Sir,” said a soft, feminine voice from the speaker, “there’s a man outside asking about you.” “Is it another of those Wolfbanes?” he asked, his scorn barely disguised, “If they’re asking for more shipments of ammunition or weapons, tell them that they won’t get anything else unless they pay. And with gold this time, no more pelts.” “No sir,” the voice continued, “He’s wearing a black overcoat, and he has one of our trucks with him.” Lynch felt his throat go dry. “S-Send him in,” he said, his hands suddenly shaking. “Yes sir,” said the voice, and the speaker cut off with a crackle. He stood shakily up from his desk and lit another cigarette, fumbling with it as he placed it in his mouth and took a long draw to steady his racing heart. Holding the cigarette between his lips, he walked across his wood-paneled office, opening the doors and stepping out into the industrial landscape that awaited him. A personnel tram was already idling on the rails a few paces away from his office, and the uniformed man in the driver’s seat waved him over. “This way, Mister Lynch Sir. I can take you down to the main gate.” “Y-Yes, alright then,” Lynch stammered as he climbed into one of the rough leather seats, breathing out and taking another draw in a vain effort to calm himself. “Everything alright sir?” the driver asked. “Yes, I’m fine. Drive on please,” Lynch responded in a puff of burnt smokeweed. “Yes sir.” The tram sped down and across the rails, and Lynch watched the smoke from his cigarette trailing behind him as the facilities of the Imperial fortress whizzed past his eyes in a blur of colors and sounds. Occasionally the tram would stop, and Lynch would be subjected to more salutes and greetings of “Good Day, Mister Lynch Sir!” as troops and personnel boarded and left the tram. Eventually the greetings all drifted into a steady buzz of background noise in Lynch’s head as the tram drove on, and eventually he was jolted out of his thoughts by the shock of the tram slowing down, the hiss of brakes, and the slow grumbling as the engine cycled down. “We’re here, Sir.” “Oh…thank you,” Lynch said, as he uneasily climbed out of the tram. Somewhere between his office in the overseer’s tower and the main gate all of the bones in his legs had turned to jelly, but he steeled himself and eased towards the main gates of the fortress. The massive steel portals emblazoned with the Imperial insignia towered over him, and by squinting Lynch could just about make out the silhouettes of soldiers trooping back and forth across the catwalks far above, watching the lands past the great walls. He made his way over to a small guard tower where a young female Foxkin in a tastefully cut uniform was standing outside, tapping a finger against a clipboard and swishing her plumy tail in agitation. “I don’t wish to criticize you, sir,” she said as Lynch approached, her soft tones barely concealing her irritation, “but the gentleman doesn’t wish to be kept waiting.” “Yes yes, I’m coming,” Lynch said, stumbling forward and tossing his cigarette to the ground where he extinguished it under the heel of his shoe. The Foxkin (“What was her name again?” Lynch thought to himself) gestured to the armored soldier sitting inside the guard tower, who flipped a series of switches and levers inside the guard tower. With a great hissing of hydraulics and a loud metallic creaking, the gate slowly opened, exposing a bright sliver of sunlight as the portals parted. After a few seconds of more metallic groaning, the portals ground to a stop, exposing a tall, gaunt man in a black overcoat and a rumbling truck silhouetted against the sun. The man stepped forward, tentatively, Lynch thought, but something in the man’s demeanor reminded him of a large wasteland predator stalking a small animal. “Do I have the pleasure of addressing Mr. Jacob Lynch of Imperial?” he asked in a deep, smooth voice as he walked forward, gloved hand extended. Lynch couldn’t help but suppress a shudder at seeing the man, and looking around, he noticed that the others felt it too. The female Foxkin was quickly trying to slick down the fur of her tail, which she had fluffed up in fear, and even the guard in the tower seemed to be standing ill at ease, despite the skull-like air mask concealing his features. Lynch extended his hand and took the man’s gloved digits in his own, giving them a firm shake, even though something deep within his brain was telling him to get away from this individual. The man returned the gesture and smiled, exposing a set of teeth that would look more fitting on a sand shark than a human being. The combined effect of the dark clothes, the man’s pale and gaunt visage, and now the serrated teeth was enough to cause Lynch to jump back as though he had been shocked. The man laughed, throwing his head back. “Oh, come now Mr. Lynch!” he said, “Is this any way to greet your business partners?” “Oh..ah…um…sorry,” Lynch said, dusting off his suit and adjusting his top hat, “I apologize for the rudeness.” The stranger waved his hand dismissively. “It is no matter. Now, to business. Would you like to see the merchandise first, or shall we negotiate?” “I’d like to see the merchandise as promised,” Lynch said, eyeing the truck behind the stranger. “Very well. Come with me then,” the man said, walking back past the gates to where the truck stood waiting. “Why don’t you bring the truck inside, Sir?” Lynch asked. The man laughed again, almost derisively. “Come now, Mr. Lynch! Do you take me for a fool? On your home ground, you will have the advantage in the negotiations! Out here, things will be more fair. Besides, I don’t wish to alarm your staff any further,” he added, casting a glance at the Foxkin, who jumped slightly at his gaze and scampered behind the guard tower, peering out at him. Lynch swallowed to moisten his dry mouth a tad, and then started out into the hardpan in front of the gate, praying that the sentries up above were keeping an eye on this arrangement. “I knew you would see things my way,” the man said, smirking at Lynch. Lynch was barely aware of the small eddies of dust swirling up and over his polished leather shoes as he walked to the back of the truck, the sweet smell of burning GL-100 issuing from the vehicle beginning to assault his senses. The stranger had gone up to the cab and said something to who was presumably the driver, and the engine soon rumbled down to a dull grumbling. Lynch stood staring at the latched rear doors of the truck, trembling with fear and anticipation as he wondered what lay within. The business proposition had been vague at best, and he had been concerned when this man had offered to take the job, but had he been serious in his claims? The stranger walked back to the rear of the truck where he met Lynch, a sneer visible on his gaunt features. “I hope you’re not getting cold feet, Mr. Lynch? It would be a shame for all this work to have gone to waste.” He gave him a mental slap to clear his thoughts, and then straightened up. “Yes, I’m fine. Let’s see what you have. I hope you’ve lived up to those claims you made when I contacted you.” The man said nothing, but walked to the doors and undid the latch, pulling the doors open with a rusty creak. The stranger gestured him inside with a sinister grin. “Go on then, have a look. You won’t be disappointed.” Lynch steeled himself and took a step up into the cavernous interior of the truck, and found himself being assaulted by a smell comparable to something that had died and been sitting in the wastes for a week. “Ugh! What is that?!” “Go on, Mr. Lynch,” the stranger said from outside, “You wanted to see the product, and see it you shall.” The normally stoic businessman gulped with anxiety and walked further inside, until the tip of his shoe bumped against something soft. He looked up from his feet, and found himself facing a clutch of fleshy, oblong pods leaning against the walls of the truck. “Wh-wh-What?!” he stammered, trying to make sense of the bizarre sight. “I must admit, they are not quite ready,” said the stranger as he climbed into the truck, “They still require time to gestate, but in a week they will be fully grown and ready for service.” Lynch felt as though his brain had slipped its moorings and was spinning in his head. “Gestate?” “Indeed,” said the man, “Light a match and hold it near the wall of this one, if you don’t believe me.” Lynch retrieved the book of matches from his jacket pocket and struck one, leaning in to the nearest pod. The pod was translucent, and was filled with some sort of viscous green fluid, which was disturbed slightly by the movements of the shadowy thing inside the pod. Lynch could barely make it out in the dim light of the truck, but he could make out a vague humanoid shape, albeit one that seemed to have chitinous plates and sinewy tendrils extending from its form. He jumped slightly as a monstrous, malformed limb slammed against the side of the pod, making the fleshy exterior distend slightly. He could only gape in terror; surely that twisted limb wasn’t part of a human body? “What exactly are these?” he asked the stranger, who was wearing a toothy sneer that nearly stretched to his ears. “Exactly what you requested sir. You summoned me asking for new, better soldiers. ‘Better for combating the Legion without all the excess equipment,’ I believe you said.” Lynch couldn’t keep himself from gaping at the egg-like pods lurking in front of him. “This…isn’t exactly what I was expecting.” “I am a scientist, Mr. Lynch, and I have been to many other places besides this little world of yours. I merely took the blueprint I was given, compared it to other existing instructions, and combined them to fit the desired results.” Lynch could barely understand how this man could take something as complex as the human body and compare it to something that could be easily built and modified, like a bicycle. “What exactly are you talking about?” Lynch asked. The stranger dismissed him again with a wave of his hand. “That is not important. What’s important is that I have fulfilled your request, even though my expectations were different from yours. My aesthetic standards are different from yours, but I assure you that I have completed your instructions to the letter.” Lynch was still silent. His brain seemed to refuse to accept what he was seeing. “Shall we discuss payment then, Mr. Lynch?” the stranger asked. “Y-Yes, of course,” Lynch said, jolting himself out of his thoughts, “What do request for payment? I have enough gold to pay you handsomely, if you so wish.” “I don’t desire gold,” the stranger replied, “I am a man of knowledge, not of material gain. For these six soldiers of mine, I request…that female being I saw near the main entry way.” Lynch was shocked at this request. “For what purpose? I do not deal in slaves or prostitutes, I manufacture material and consumer goods here!” “And yet you make weapons?” the stranger replied with a smirk. “Th-That doesn’t matter! The important thing is that if you want that girl, the deal is off! I will not cater to whatever sick thoughts you harbor.” The man stepped back outside, laughing all the way. “You have me all wrong, Mr. Lynch. I desire knowledge, not base, carnal desires. I wish to observe her, learn more about her race. Surely you appreciate the pursuit of wisdom, Mr. Lynch?” Lynch was silent for a moment as he exited the truck, mulling this over in his head. His company had done some questionable things since its founding, but for some reason this negotiation was striking him as very distasteful. As if he could read his thoughts, the stranger replied, “If it will set your mind at ease, I will return her once my observations are complete. She will be unharmed and will be just as she left, I assure you.” As if this set his conscience at ease, Lynch hesitantly said “Yes,” and took the gloved hand of the stranger, giving it a firm shake. He once again found himself shuddering, not just at the shark-toothed smile, but at the feeling of wrongness he felt as he looked at the man’s eyes, as though some unknowable, awful thing that should never be seen by man lurked behind that visage. “I appreciate doing business with you, Mr. Lynch. You will not be disappointed.
The rest of the encounter had gone by in a blur. Lynch vaguely remembered shouts of protest as the stranger took his secretary into the truck with him, cries of disgust and alarm as his crew unloaded the strange pods from the truck, and the loud rumble of an engine and a burst of sweet-smelling GL-100 exhaust as the stranger and his truck drove off into the distance. After a quick tram ride back to the overseer’s tower, Lynch stepped off the vehicle, through the carved wooden doors, across the room, and settled himself back down into his chair, which again creaked in protest. His heart had just began to beat normally again as the weight of the days events settled on him like a lead jacket. What exactly would come about of this agreement of his? He still remembered the name the man introduced himself with: Ludwig Van Ness. Too ordinary, but maybe, intentionally so, he thought to himself. The cries of his secretary and the thought of the sinister pods lurking in the deepest recesses of the Imperial fortress filled his wary mind with even more anxiety as he thought of them. Would Van Ness return her as he had promised? What would those things down in the sub-levels even do once they had finished growing and hatched? The thoughts swirled around his head like a swarm of angry hornets until he pressed down on the button on his desk speaker. “Someone send me up a bottle of whiskey and a couple of glasses. And someone find me a replacement for my secretary.” He released the button, and leaned back in his chair, again feeling the annoyed creaks and groans of the mechanikal innards. He put his feet up on his desk, placed his hands behind his head, and stared up at the carved paneling of the ceiling. His was not a pleasant job, but as the Overseer and President of Imperial, he had to do his duties, no matter how pleasant. As Lynch closed his eyes, his only thought was “I’ll never get to sleep tonight.”
Stay tuned for the next installment of Tales of the Shattered World, coming soon!