Studying the portal was nothing short of fascinating. Hazel had been appointed lead on the project and was usually the only one going through the portal, with a few exceptions where she'd needed help carrying things.
She had traveled back and forth several times - never casually though, as it was still high alert for the entire team whenever the portal was used and the mayor had to approve every single expedition. Hazel could count the number of times she'd been to Oasis Landing on one hand, but with each trip she had brought back more curious samples, written documentation and outrageously advanced technology. What they had found out so far was still inconclusive about Oasis Landing’s past, but they could say with certainty that their two worlds were inexplicably linked.
The running hypothesis was still that the portal lead to an alternate universe, rather than to the future of their own world. It was the only explanation that could be reconciled with what they knew about time and the laws of physics.
But something deep inside Hazel couldn’t help but wonder; what if? Had they actually done it, as they claimed?
Had the brilliant minds of Oasis Landing really invented genuine time travel?
Hazel had taken to wearing simple jeans and blouses under a lab coat to work these days, to spare her boss any more trouble in case the mayor came by for a surprise inspection of the facility.
On days like these, when the rain came down so strong and the roads were so flooded that Hazel was forced to use the car pool instead of riding her bike to work, she almost felt like she'd lost every last little part of her individuality. She was nothing but a soulless cog in a great machine. It was in those moments that she wondered if she'd made the right choice in pursuing traditional employment.
But the sun would always come out again, brightening the small town and with it Hazel's mood. Work at the lab was exciting and her life was good. There was nothing to complain about.
Hazel smiled widely as she zoomed along on her bicycle, enjoying the fresh air and beautiful autumn foliage on her way home.
The weather at this time of the year was changeable, but Hazel didn't mind a few little droplets of rain. She was almost home, and passing by her favorite spot in town on the way was always worth the slight detour.
When she saw it, Hazel almost took a nosedive. She only barely managed to skid her bike to a halt.
Instead of feasting her eyes on ancient oak trees and swarms of butterflies as she'd expected, Hazel was now faced with a filthy construction site.
The sudden rain shower made it look even worse, if such a thing was even possible: The ground, which had once been covered in soft moss and patches of flowers, was a giant mess of mud puddles and tire tracks.
All that remained to indicate that this place had once been a thriving forest were a few tree stumps and a sign, the only thing left intact from the park Hazel had once known and loved.
Appaloosa County Nature Preserve, the sign still read, now serving as a mocking reminder of what was lost forever.
Hazel was devastated.
When she turned, she noticed another sim across the street, standing in front of the whimsical little house Aidan had grown up in.
Aidan's mother, Patricia Brooks, was on the edge of her property, her posture stiff and her face stony.
"What happened," was all Hazel could choke out once she'd approached her.
Patricia's face was an unemotional mask, but the tone of voice gave away her consternation.
"It's his way of getting back at me," she croaked. Hazel did not have to ask who - Mayor Wells must have had to have been furious to find out that he was going to have an opponent in the upcoming elections for the first time in years.
"I don't flatter myself to think that this was the only reason, of course. I'm sure there was a lot of money involved," Patricia scoffed, "A mall, right in the center of these well-populated suburbs... The investors will make a fortune, though they seem to have an inexhaustible budget already."
"But how could this happen, without anyone stopping them? Is there no way we can..." Hazel trailed off as her mind, whirring to find some kind of solution, returned to how irreversible all of this was.
Patricia grimaced, doubtlessly having come to the same conclusion. "It all happened so quickly. When I came home from work, it was already too late. All those wonderful old trees... gone. And there was nothing to be done about it." She sighed. "You know how quickly construction can happen in Simnation. They did it all within the day... it was almost impressive to watch."
Huxley knew nothing of her sister's dismay. She'd had a long day busking around town and had decided spend the evening at one of her favorite haunts.
It was a slow night at Barney's. There was no DJ tonight, which meant that Offbeat Autonomy would have been welcome to make use of the small stage for an impromptu gig. But as usual, the other band members had offered nothing but excuses. Hux had been mad at first, but now she was lost in the music, playing for no one but herself.
When she'd finally had enough, she put down the guitar and headed straight for the bar.
The bartender generously served Hux a cocktail on the house, a meager payment for her performance. Still, Huxley took it gratefully. A strong drink and some quiet was all she wanted right now.
The only other patron, a man who had seemed entirely focused on his drinking up until this point, dashed those plans, however. In a baritone voice he attempted to strike up a conversation.
"Hey, you're pretty good with that guitar."
"Thanks." Hux did not lift her eyes from her drink and proceeded to take a long swig. She was not feeling social tonight.
The man did not take the hint. "You a musician or something?"
"I have a band, yeah."
"Sweet," he said appreciatively. "I'm a bit of a virtuoso myself, actually."
At this, Huxley perked up. Despite her bandmates' flakiness she was happy with them, but having a backup for days like this one was an appealing prospect. She looked the man up and down for the first time and was pleasantly surprised. He had long hair, a leather jacket and a confident demeanor. She could see someone like this having good stage presence. His stare certainly was intense.
"Cool, what do you play?" Huxley asked, a friendly smile replacing her previous surliness.
The guy took a sip of his drink before he replied. "Oh, I dabble in this and that," he smirked, "But if you're a good girl, I'll let you play my flute sometime."
And as quickly as it had appeared, Huxley's smile was wiped off her face again. She rolled her eyes. "Ew. Goodbye." Huxley downed the last of her drink and got up, ready to call it a night.
"Aw, baby, wait." The man got up too and moved to block her way. "You didn't like that one? Don't worry, I've got more. Do you want me to strum your strings instead?"
"Gross. Get out of my way!" Huxley grimaced and tried to sidestep him, but he moved with her.
He was grinning even wider now, obviously enjoying this. "Then how about I tickle your ivories?"
The bartender watched the altercation, silently wondering if he was supposed to intervene in this situation.
He really wished he'd never left his cushy job as an Elvis impersonator in Lucky Palms.
Finally, Huxley had had enough. "I think you're better suited for percussion," she snarled before landing a well-aimed punch on the guy's face. There wasn't much physical force behind it, but it was enough to stun her opponent for a moment, giving Huxley a chance to get him in a choke-hold.
The man struggled, but Huxley did not relent. He soon crumpled to the ground, but not before sustaining a few more kicks and punches.
"You better not let me see you around here again," Huxley warned while the man got back up laboriously. Right now the injuries were mostly to his pride, though he was going to feel the bruises for weeks to come.
He left with what little dignity remained to him.
... but not without making one last sleazy comment. "I like 'em feisty," he said over his shoulder, smirking.
"Scumbag," Huxley muttered, but decided to let it slide.
“What’s the holdup? You may be traveling through time, but some of us don’t have all day," Mayor Wells drawled, the smug grin on his face either because of his lame joke or for the fact that he'd finally been able to allocate funds towards a personal bodyguard. The hulking figure in black stood silently behind him.
The scientists were by the containment chamber, speaking in hushed voices.
"If you want I can send someone else in,” Wolfson offered. “You’re the most qualified, but if you’re not feeling up to it today—“
“No, I’ll do it,” Hazel said firmly. “It’s just a feeling, that’s all. You know me, I worry too much.”
Wolfson let out a sigh of relief. "Good. Let's get this over with then, so we can return to work without having the mayor breathing down our necks."
Hazel shrugged off her lab coat, placed it on a nearby desk and made her way towards the portal.