For the first time in a long time, Randidly felt exhausted. The day had been long and full of trials. Although there was a strange intermittent humming from his Illusion, it seemed to have survived. Unfortunately, the mental troubles didn't seem to be very close to being over.
"This is where you live? I suppose I should have assumed from your bare feet, but... tsk tsk, you should really develop a marketable Skill." The old woman, who had finally introduced herself as Maude, said.
"I have a Skill," Randidly replied "I smelt steel.'
"Oh." Maude seemed genuinely surprised by this. "That's good."
The refugees they rescued had been told to remain in the area of the disaster center for the time being until lodging could be erected for them. According to what Randidly could glean, they planned to set them all up shop right there, not 2 miles from an area crawling with Level 50 monsters.
For reasons wholly unrelated to the very real danger that she was in, Maude refused to remain at the compound and followed Randidly back to his place. In addition, she had brought "that nice foreign family from down the road," who turned out to be seven Haitians who had come to America weeks before the System arrived, and spoke enough English to know that they didn't understand anything Randidly said. They followed Maude's points well enough, however.
It was a hassle, but Randidly felt an odd affection for the exasperating woman and her antics. At the very least, when she was around, everyone eyes were fixed on her, and not on Randidly. With his illusion behaving somewhat erratically, having a distraction served him well.
Plus, Randidly cared about these people. He had helped them, and he didn't want to abandon them now.
Tatiana thought the woman was hilarious and had been reduced to a giggling blob by the woman's snark. Not that she had any room to talk. She had picked up a dozen or so strays herself. Although Tatiana's tended to be young, attractive women.
In his heart, Randidly felt a thread of trepidation about the fates of these women, considering Tatiana's company, but he trusted her. She wasn't the type to force women to do anything they didn't want to do.
They parted at the edge of town, Randidly returning with his 8 strays, Tatiana walking away with her 12.
"She's out of your league," Maude said seriously after Tatiana had gone. Randidly did his best not to roll his eyes and helped the Haitian family erect a small hut next to his own. The work went rather quickly because Randidly handled all of the heavy lifting. At the end of it, Randidly was slightly put out, because this hut was a much better product than his own.
It was somewhat aggravating to be outdone by the refugees, but honestly, Randidly supposed it didn’t matter. It also seemed to have an effect on the people around him, who appreciated that he didn’t put on airs. As it was, he could only retire to his hut after getting the new arrivals settled. He had promised to take the father of the family, Jude, to the steelworker's area to get him started on a job the following morning.
A month ago, if someone had told Randidly he would come to Zone 1 to help others get jobs, he probably would have looked blankly at you. Now, Randidly had the inklings of a plan.
One point that he had considered in his plan to become an influential drone maker was the fact that he would need a feasible way for him to obtain the steel he would want to work with. Erickson Steel had already gained some traction as a high-quality product, and Randidly had his own experimental steels that he would use on his drones. But would the fact that he was supposedly smelting the steel and also constructing the drones raise any flags…?
Not that he currently understood the process of drone creation, but from the talk he had heard from Foreman Davey, it wasn’t proceeding very quickly at all. Randidly was willing to push that, but only a little bit. If Randidly had a supplier of Erickson Steel that would be one last astonishing thing about him. It wouldn’t be too strange to groom a successor to his Steel Smelting SKills, right?
However, Randidly knew that this was much easier said than done. He had thousands of advantages over Jude that allowed him to make Erickson Steel so casually. But it was a line of thought worth pursuing. If nothing else, it would push the man towards PP generation, which would be a boon for his family in the long run.
After letting the work of the day fall away, Randidly relaxed and reached out with Plant Dominance. Methodically, he continued to scan Zone 1. This time, he was much more thorough in the past, as the Zone was constantly ‘expanding’, adding higher Leveled Zones to the edges. But after about three hours of this, Randidly was left with a grimace.
It seemed that the more specific his scan was, the less he could detect from the Creature’s Aether. This last round of very specific, targeted scans yielded nothing. He had even moved through West Providence with great care. Perhaps it was the lack of plants in that scientific and military installation, but he found nothing.
Yet his Zone wide scans always caught a whiff of it. And if it wasn’t his imagination, that whiff was growing stronger and more distinct each time. What was even more confusing was that it seemed subtly different than the Creature’s Aether that he was used to.
Randidly had been aware that this was a different incarnation, or clone, or something, a construct of Aether with sentience. But he didn’t really consider what that might mean. Could this version of the Creature not even be aware of him? Or if it was, could it not understand the experiments it had done on him?
Lucretia’s perusal of the Creature’s fragmented memories added some things, but not enough to receive a definitive answer. There was at some point a split, but it wasn’t clear when the incarnations were separated out from each other. Then, after that, there was some communication, but mostly it was from the incarnations to the ‘mother’. It didn’t appear that there was significant communication between the different incarnations.
The split seemed to be after the Creature transported him into the dungeon on Shal’s world. But beyond that…
It was almost more unnerving to not know whether the Creature that was operating here viewed him as a threat, or understood him as intimately as the other Creature had. To be sure, Randidly felt confident that he understood the Creature’s goals. And that was enough for him to act against its interests.
For the rest of the night, Randidly deeply pondered the problem of recreating As the Sun Stills. He needed a spark, an image that would help drive him forward. There just wasn’t enough leftover from his fight against Drak in Shal’s world.
It would be a long and fruitless night, but Randidly didn’t worry about it overmuch. He just needed a shred of a path forward. If he had that slight whiff, he would be able to brute force the rest.
After all, a spear can only advance. And part of using a spear was waiting for that opportunity.
The squad leader raised his watch to his mouth. “No response from Ghost’s observers?”
“None,” Came the reply over the radio. “Which can be interpreted as approval. Operation is a go. Remember, the most important goal is to secure the Elixirs. Of secondary important is securing the child. He shouldn’t be powerful, but there are two dangerous individuals, the African American and an Indian man. The rest appear to be more support and crafting based Classes.”
“Copy,” the squad leader said, sitting back. He didn’t yet give the order to move in, both because of how dangerous the monsters were here, and because he believed that they could move while one of the dangerous ones left their base of operations. From their observations, they regularly left to patrol the nearby area, and even head into the danger zone that the cabin was built on top of.
Today, luck was with them. As the three squads acting in concert watched, both the dangerous individuals headed into the danger zone, leaving the cabin relatively unprotected. They waited 10 minutes, for safety. The large woman and a Hispanic man were standing at an outdoor fire, stirring a pot. There was a woman painting near the entrance to the Danger Zone, trying to capture the aura of the energy that was roiling off of it.
The squad leader flashed a hand signal, and then waited one more minute for word to spread. Then they moved as one. These men were all veterans of the first expedition into the borderlands. A lot of them had been heavily wounded in fighting in those first few weeks and had bounced back to form a special squad. They knew their business.
Things began to go wrong very quickly.