“What the fuck,” Randidly hissed, staring up at the screen in front of him. Father Foster was calmly giving a speech about the importance of unity in the face of adversity. Which was apparently a live speech. Father Foster was currently emphasizing how important this was, considering the recent attempt on President Howard’s life.
It was already a bad day. Randidly had checked his Level earlier today and swore violently when he realized he was less than 10% from Leveling to 25. Somehow, during the assault on the base, he had gained almost 20% of a Level. Which made Randidly seriously confused.
One limit that the System had placed on Leveling was that killing other humans yielded almost no experience. It was a surprisingly gentle allowance made by the System that took away an incentive to murder other people for power. It was much more efficient to attack monsters to gain experience.
When he asked Lucretia about it, she theorized it actually had something to do with the different constructs of Aether and how people absorbed experience anyway. Monsters were designed with an Aether construct that when destroyed, produced easily digestible experience. Humans obviously weren’t and were therefore much less useful to kill.
Then why had his experience risen so much? There was an easy explanation, but…
It just meant that what he had killed weren’t people. But that made sense in a way, because Father Foster was up there on the television, even now. If he had killed the person, Randidly hoped they would have the good manners to stay dead. Was it some sort of monster that could disguise itself?
There was another problem, Randidly realized watching the television. The Father Foster on tv… looked younger than the middle-aged woman he had killed in that powerplant. It was subtle, and at first Randidly thought it could be attributable to makeup. But…
Shaking his head, Randidly walked away from the screen and towards the main building of the farming compound. While he walked, he reached down with Plant Dominance and continued to expand and refine the facilities in the underground cave system beneath the place. It was still being held back as an emergency measure, but Randidly wanted it to be ready, just in case. Besides, he believed he would spend some time forging in the deep darkness soon.
These enemies giving experience caused him another headache. If he couldn’t kill them, he needed to pull Acri and Sulfur back and use them in battle so Acri would absorb the experience to grow. No more blowing them away with Skills.
There was a tickling on Randidly’s neck, and he spun around to find Tatiana walking towards him with a determined expression on her face. Awkwardly, Randidly stopped and scratched his cheek. He supposed it was a disservice to her that he was purposefully not thinking about the fact she had kissed him, and what it meant. Especially after he had forced Neveah to reveal to her fiance that she was an imposter.
Now here was Randidly, an imposter in a few ways, with a woman who seemed to have feelings for him. Did he have feelings for her?
But that was why he wasn’t thinking about it. As long as he could fool himself into thinking what they had was… simply transactional, he didn’t need to reveal his deception. But honestly, how long had things been more than transactional between them? At least a month, perhaps more. From the day they had met, there was… something there.
Or had there been? It was hard to remember. Either way, he needed…. Well, he wanted to clarify.
Tatiana spoke first when she was near him. “Follow me. I want to talk.” Then she spun on her heel and continued walking away, towards the forest. Randidly glanced upwards. There wouldn’t be a drone patrol for a while, and he wanted privacy for this conversation as well. So he followed her away into the tree lines.
She was determined, and lead him almost three miles away from the compound. It wasn’t a distance that Randidly would normally have noticed, but he counted because he knew that there was something special in this way. And sure enough, they eventually broke through a line of blueberry bushes and found themselves faced with a strange little grotto hidden beneath the trees.
The trees stretched overhead, branches extending until there were only a few sunbeams that could make it through to what lay below. A hand of roots extended upwards, pointing towards the village. Around it, flowers ranging in size from golf ball to basketball bloomed, their fragrant faces opening upward. It was the spot where Randidly had guided the child previously.
A part of Randidly wanted to ask whether Tatiana knew what this place meant to him, but he already knew there was no way she had connected him with that. And bringing it up… felt definitely like bragging.
Tatiana turned to face him. She opened her mouth, then scanned his face and body language critically. There was definitely a cold air to her right now, as if she was in a bad mood. Had something happened?
But to Randidly, this was easiest. If she had been bantering and kind, it would have been hard to break the illusion of who he was. He would have felt… perhaps guilt, or perhaps regret, because those moments might soon be lost. Her cold exterior numbed him somewhat to those warm memories, letting him take an action that might endanger them.
“Before you speak… I’d like to say something,” Randidly said quietly.
Tatiana pursed her lips and folded her arms across her chest, but nodded.
Randidly nodded as well, more to himself than her, and then said, “Look, I’ll keep it brief. I… my name isn’t really Baloo Erickson. You probably guessed that. I don’t doubt you did some research on where I served my military duty. But the truth is, I’m from Zone 32. I came over just as it opened, and I’m under a Skill that lets me hide my true appearance.”
Tatiana’s eyes sparkled golden as she watched him. He paused and scanned her face, but couldn’t even extract the smallest bit of impression from her. It was like there was a door inside of Tatiana, and she had closed it. She was blank and ambivalent. So Randidly soldiered forward.
“I should have told you right when you agreed to join me, but I suppose I believed briefly I could truly switch over to being this person. ...It’s become obvious that I was something of a fool for believing I could do that. So… I wanted to explain to you what’s going on. Especially because we…”
Randidly trailed off, suddenly unsure of where he was going with that sentence. But now at least, he had a firmer sense of Tatiana’s reaction, based upon her face; she was pissed off.
She cleared her throat. “Is that all? Do you have anything else to say?”
Randidly blinked. “About the disguise and why I did it? I figured that I wouldn’t get access to the drone blueprints if it was known I was from a different Zone. A disguise solved that problem, and people were wandering in from the borderlands every day. It worked out well-”
“Not the details of your plan,” Tatiana said through gritted teeth. “Perhaps something that you wanted to say after reflecting on your actions.”
Again, Randidly considered this. “...honestly, mostly that it was dumb to make the fake identity be a few inches shorter than my real height. It’s very disconcerting to have people constantly looking at your mouth-”
“IDIOT!” Tatiana exploded. “Just apologize.”
Now her emotions seemed to gush forth, and Tatiana balled her hands into fists and glared at Randidly.
For his part, Randidly frowned slightly. “Yea, you are right. This is my fault. I apologize. But it was necessary, I hope you understand that.”
A lot of her sadness disappeared at the apology, but the anger stayed. “Maybe you believed it was necessary, but it was a lie, Baloo. Or whatever I should fucking call you. You betrayed the trust of the people around you.”
“Look, I get how you feel-” Randidly began, but Tatiana cut him off.
“No, I get how you think that you were in the right. Or even if you were in the wrong, it was a small thing that can be brushed away with inane reassurances. But it can’t. You only have one chance with trust. It’s fragile. This isn’t a rom…. A movie, this is real life. If you want to make up for this, it will take a long time.”
Randidly’s temper flared. Every time he apologized, she seemed to attack more. So maybe instead of apologizing, he should attack her. It seemed very ironic to him that the woman who worked as an escort, no matter how high end, would lecture him on trust.
But as soon as he had that thought, Randidly felt his temper fizzle out. That was… unfair of him to say. Just like Tatiana was being unfair in her characterization of things. So instead of speaking all of the vicious little remarks that his anger had created, he let them go, and looked at Tatiana. “...Tatiana, what are you afraid of?”
She stopped too, seeming abruptly exhausted. After a bit, the corners of her mouth came up into a crooked smile, and she barked out a hollow laugh. “That kid Nathan just upgraded my Class. I don’t know how he did it, I just sat there and daydreamed, and then… and then it was done. Everything… everything since I’ve met you has been accelerating. It was easy to agree, and now I’m just wondering what I have bound myself to. The things that happen around you… they shouldn’t be possible.”
Randidly laughed, and Tatiana shook her head helplessly.