Alan softly rubbed Jane’s hair. The sleeping girl stirred, but only a little, and rolled over.
“This is all for you, so you can be strong, far stronger than me,” Alan whispered. “This is all for you.”
His wristlet buzzed, and Alan withdrew his hand from rubbing his daughter’s hair; he didn’t want her to wake. His first reaction was annoyance, but then he noticed it was Ezekiel calling him, and his attention sharpened. Ezekiel hadn’t checked in with Ghost yesterday for whatever reason, and Alan was very interested in knowing why.
As Alan walked out of the room and answered the call, he had a brief moment of wonderment: why did Ghost feed him that bit of information about Ezekiel not checking in? Recently, Alan had become increasingly paranoid of Ghost’s motivations. Part of the reason was the stress of dealing with constant setbacks in the borderlands, and the Zone growth, but another part was that the rest of the UHF government was insulated from those problems. Therefore, they began to grow more demanding and vindictive, losing sight of the threat hanging above all their heads.
“Hello? How goes the exploration.”
Instead of the man’s usual snarky attitude, Ezekiel seemed remarkably somber when he spoke. “We’ve made contact with the people of Zone 32, and people who have access to the upper levels of government at the main Village here. It’s hard to understand, but it looks like we lucked into a high ranking military squad. But there is more.”
After a hesitation, Ezekiel continued. “...when we encountered them, I… engaged in a rather friendly duel with one of the locals. I believe that both sides were curious about the other side’s strength.”
Ezekiel didn’t continue, as if he didn’t know what to say. Alan breathed out through his nose. No wonder the man hadn’t checked in. It was an emotional problem. That also explained why Ghost put the task on Alan to solve. That shitty little glorified toaster…!
“Yes, and badly. But that’s not the worst of it. Hank participated after me, and with someone, I would say…” Ezekiel seemed to struggle for several seconds, before he said, “...would say was much more powerful. He fought him to a draw, but I believe Hank was injured. There was-”
“WHAT!” Alan shouted. Immediately, he winced and hurried further down the hall from Jane’s room. If she awakened, his wife would kill him. He continued down the hall and out onto the veranda of the house.
“What happened?” It was… almost unimaginable to Alan that his brother would ever lose. The man was a shortsighted idiot, but he had been carefully shaped and sculpted by their father, who was a man who was nothing if not thorough.
“I was unconscious, but from what the kid told me-”
“Oh… yea…” Now Ezekiel fell silent again, but it wasn’t shame that silenced him, but another sort of embarrassment. As if he were caught playing with matches by an adult. “Their… uh… their doctor was just a kid, like 13 or 14. It was hard to tell, he talks really strangely. But he said that Hank developed a new Skill, and was just suffering from a lack of ambient energy. The kid supplied it, somehow, and helped him heal.”
Alan muted the call as he pondered this, and wrapped twice on the wood of the railing. As expected, a bird landed next to him, flashing with a metallic gleam. As it opened its mouth, it spoke with Ghost’s tinny voice. “It is… possible. More than possible. I always expected that Hank had incredible potential, so much so that him creating a Skill was only a matter of time. Only…”
The bird trailed off. A soft “Hello?” came out of Alan’s watch. The tiny bird shook its head and said. “Only I am concerned that a child would have the ability to fix it. It is… disturbing. I’ll update my projections for this Zone with the provided information.”
Alan unmuted the communication. “I’m here. Inform me the instant that Hank awakens. Is there anything else?”
“Yes. There is a natural formation of ice here, something really weird. The locals… they say it’s a remnant of a battle one of theirs had with something called a ‘Judgement’. It doesn’t mean anything to me, but I thought it might mean something to Ghost.”
It didn’t mean anything to Alan either, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t important. Hopefully, Ghost would feel it fit to share that tidbit of information with him. Before he let Ezekiel go, Alan clearly asked, “Are you the father of Randidly Ghosthound?”
There was silence. And then the line went dead as if Ezekiel hadn’t heard the question. Alan swore quietly. He rapped on the wooden rail again and then spoke. “What can you tell me about this Randidly Ghosthound?”
“Confusing.” Ghost’s little bird said. “I’ve been following his movements… but it is difficult both due to his speed of movement, and the limitations on the drone. Hopefully, a breakthrough with the drone initiative will happen soon, and these problems will become moot.”
Alan fell silent. The young man was apparently willing to just busy himself with small tasks ignoring the political ramifications of his obvious strength. Worst of all, he was apparently working for Senator Firefly, the minority speaker in Congress. The man’s pompous attitude, relying on the younger Ghosthound to back it up, was becoming increasingly obnoxious. Another problem to deal with.
But instead, Alan moved on to a different topic. “Father Foster and her ilk are setting up another normalization camp in the West after they heard of that new suburb the boundaries are likely to expand to. I can interfere, but it will be-”
“Let them be,” Ghost replied quietly.
Alan’s mouth firmed into a grim line. “I urge you to examine their actions more harshly. You know, Dr. Karman was last seen at one of their-”
“I am aware. They have been investigated. They are clean.” And with that, the bird flew away. Alan swore quietly, and abruptly wished he had a cigarette. He never smoked himself, but Hank had, and Alan made it a habit to borrow them while the two brothers were still close. But obtaining them now was extremely difficult. The tobacco farms existed, but no one was really willing to work them. Prices skyrocketed.
Sighing, Alan turned back and went to the kitchen to make coffee. It might be almost midnight, but he had work to do.
Neveah had been given simple instructions.
“I need you to be me,” Randidly had said to her. “But me at my most low key. I don’t want to scare them, I just want them to think they know where I am, especially before they realize… realize what I am to Zone 32. I want to be a mysterious, but harmless presence. But if you have any questions, feel free to contact me.”
Neveah resolved never to need to contact Randidly. Both because he was likely busy doing some boring training, but also because this was the first time she had ever been alone.
She was very excited.
So when she wandered into Zone 1, she considered what she knew about Randidly, and what he did when he was low key. He didn’t like to talk to people, so she couldn’t just waltz into a town, as much as that made her sad. That just wasn’t Randidly’s style.
Instead, he had this mysterious power of making other people come to him. This Neveah had studied in detail. So when she was in Zone 1, she did her best to emulate Randidly. After months of careful study, her examination had yielded definitive results. Move somewhere, make a home a little away from other people, and people came and visited you. That was simply how it worked.
Now, homes were very important to people, and now that Neveah was a people they were very important to her as well. Monsters weren’t particularly concerned about such things; a cave was just as good as the open sky, as long as it wasn’t raining. But to people, a home was an obvious weakness and an expression of oneself. Although Neveah had initially thought the concept of a home was stupid, why give your enemies the exact place they needed to strike to wound you, she recently realized that was the point.
This home would be her weakness. So if she wanted to meet people, she simply had to wait and defend it. It was strangely logical, in a very human way.
So she followed her process. First, find a big city. She skipped some of the smaller ones, as she wasn’t interested in just a few people coming. Randidly had told her to make sure they knew where she was. Or he was. Gender was confusing to Neveah at the best of times, and pretending to be Randidly made her more confused.
Then, she found a nearby hill. There was an apple grove there, but Neveah never liked apples, and she demolished it. Meat was much more suited to her tastes. Then, using her Earth Shaping Skill, she constructed a castle. Her original idea was to make a giant statue of Randidly, to show people around who was there, but then she remembered that she also had to be low key. So instead, she spent time sculpting all of her favorite people in her front yard, but on a small scale. Randidly, Alana, Ace, Dinesh, Tykes…
Then, within a single day, people came to visit her, just as she planned. It was so nice to be proved right.