When Randidly and Helen arrived, Erickson Steel was bustling with activity like a beehive in springtime.
The small tract of land that had originally been the safe space for the many escorts that Tatiana helped ferry out of their prior lives was still there, but it was a tiny blip on the densely packed landscape. Thick pillars of smoke wafted up out of the deep valleys that had dug into the ground. Randidly had previously cleared quite a bit of space for the metalworking to expand, but it seemed that his vision hadn’t been ambitious enough.
With the expanded foundry, forges, furnaces, and the additional small housing complex to service Erickson Steel’s employees, the area was almost five times larger than Randidly remembered. It sprawled South, moving out of the forested area and toward the small river that meandered down to Lake Apollo.
In addition to the main buildings, there were also countless warehouses and testing facilities that acted as a halo around Erickson Steel’s businesses. Beyond that central area to the South, there was also a small park and a series of inns to handle the flow of people buying and selling Erickson Steel product.
There was even a small pair of steel rails with several hand carts sitting next to the small waystation.
“So, you own all of this?” Helen asked with a frown. “...and your business is in trouble?”
Randidly carefully looked around the bustling area. “Apparently so. We won’t know for sure until we can talk to someone important.”
The two of them were standing on the lip of the vast dug out space, looking down at the complex network of interlocking industrial buildings. From this distance, Randidly saw almost a hundred people carrying materials toward various places, but he didn’t see anyone that he recognized.
Well, it’s not like I’m without methods… even if I don’t send a message, heading toward the space where the old headquarters was built would be a good start...
Closing his eyes, Randidly let his Aether sweep outward away from his position. Even more clearly than before, Randidly developed a very intimate understanding of the state of Erickson Steel as he touched all the individual workers and felt the different Skills that they possessed. Their Levels and basic Skills appeared in his mind. Although he was dealing with a sea of information, his Intelligence gave him enough processing power to work through it all.
What he found left him confused. When he had informed Tatiana that he was heading over, her immediate relief was obvious. It seemed that the difficulties that Erickson Steel had faced over the last several months had not been small. Yet as Randidly scanned the surrounding area… the people he sensed were a high Level and were clearly using Skills that they had trained with for a long time.
Although everyone was busily working, everyone appeared satisfied; no one seemed to display any sort of fear for their own life from being openly persecuted or oppressed.
So the Skilled workers of Erickson Steel weren’t getting poached and the other party wasn’t using force to intimidate the people here at all. Those were positive signs but also signs that resolving the issue would be more troublesome. Violence was simple to address. Tatiana had mentioned the other party was restricting Erickson Steel’s access to raw materials, but could that really have such a non-visible effect? And could this other force do it without relying on rough instruments?
Very quickly, Randidly located Tatiana, working within one of the central facilities. It seemed that the same headquarters was still in place, although it had expanded upward five floors. He turned and looked at Helen. “On second thought, can you go gather some high-Level monster bones for me? I’m running a bit low, and it seems like the situation here isn’t simple; I’ll need to devote some time. If you head West, you should find some high-Level areas. Aim for monsters above Level 60.”
“Got it.” Helen’s eyes were bright with the promise of violence as she hurried away.
Chuckling, Randidly crouched down. After gathering sufficient bodily capability with Yyrwood Body of Yggdrasil and Monstrosity’s Appalling Physicality, Randidly was able to explode into the air, collapsing the edge of the slope on which he had been standing. The air travel was quick, but also dangerous. In order to obtain a clean landing, Randidly guided several roots upward to serve as a landing spot above the Erickson Steel Headquarters. It was almost silently that he finally alighted on the roof without destroying anything.
Afterward, Randidly figured it would be for the best to simply walk in the front door to get a good look at this renovated headquarters. As with many of the locations in Zone 1, the Erickson Steel headquarters was equipped with old-Earth automatic doors that slid easily open as he approached. Air-conditioned air immediately blasted outward, cooling Randidly’s face. Blinking, Randidly proceeded forward.
As he walked into the building, Randidly’s smile was slightly twisted. Honestly, it's felt like I’ve been in a different world for the past several years. This sort of building… it really brings me back.
Within the building was a lazy looking guard at a security desk, a young woman typing in the reception area, and several plastic chairs in which people could sit while they waited in the atrium area. When the security guard didn’t look up at all to Randidly’s presence, Randidly wandered over to the reception desk.
“Can you let Tatiana know that Baloo Erickson is here to see her?” Randidly said, even as he internally winced at speaking aloud the horrendous name that he had made up on the spot during his first arrival in Zone 1.
The young looking receptionist looked up when Randidly approached and smiled politely. But at the name, both the receptionist and the security guard perked up. It was clear that they recognized it.
“You… you’re the founder of this company?” The receptionist asked. Her fingers ceased typing and her whole attention seemed to focus toward him. Although Randidly hadn’t noticed initially, the eyes that waited for his answer were yellow, like a cat’s. As he considered her, he noticed her glossy chestnut hair and expensive looking coat. It was clear that she was well compensated for her position at Erickson Steel.
“Yes,” Randidly said simply. “If you could tell Tatiana as quickly as possible, I’d appreciate it.”
Behind him, Randidly felt the security guard giving him a rapid once over. Very quickly the man’s gaze landed on Randidly’s bare and dirty feet. Over Randidly’s shoulder, the security guard gave the receptionist an aggrieved look that probably translated to something like “why is it our job to deal with crazies like this?”.
Without bothering to assist the receptionist at all, the security guard slouched back down at his station and began to ignore Randidly. But the young woman continued to stare at him with her warm amber eyes.
“Do you have any proof?” She asked in a quiet voice.
Randidly thought about it. Perhaps he could produce a bar of Blood Steel in order to convince her, but would that really carry enough weight to go against his rather disheveled appearance? Would she even recognize a bar of Erickson Steel? Aside from the belt he acquired from Sam, Randidly wasn’t wearing any of his other new armors. In his mind, walking around in such obvious battle equipment looked a little silly.
So he had the ash-grey Sulfur, a leather vest, and a clean pair of worn jeans that he had obtained from Donnyton before the challenge. He looked like someone who just came from a long shift at work. If he wanted to walk in through the front door like this, he really needed to spend a bit more time on his appearance.
Randidly scratched his head awkwardly. Well, no one can be good at everything… if this doesn’t work I can just proceed directly to Tatiana’s office from the outside. Or send her a message to come fetch me, although that feels a bit embarrassing.
“Nope. All I have is my word.” Randidly said. And then he laughed to himself because hundreds of miles away from Donnyton and that lingering violence, a receptionist at the door of a business he owned stopped him dead with a simple request for proof. This place didn't care about the turmoil in his chest. And he didn’t have the heart to force the issue publicly as he understood she was just doing her job.
A job that was likely listed under the security guard’s job description, yet it was clear that man had no intention of assisting the young receptionist.
Strangely, Randidly felt oddly liberated by the fact that the demonstration of power he had made with images in Donnyton meant nothing here. Even more strangely, despite Randidly’s frank admission he had no proof, the young woman continued to look at him. The two stared at each other, bright yellow and emerald considering each other. Then, after nodding to herself while keeping her eyes fixed on him, she picked up a phone at her desk and dialed a number.
A few seconds later, she tsk’d in annoyance and set the phone down. “Ms. Tatiana is in a meeting, but I can take you up to wait outside her office for her to finish.”
As if finally catching onto the fact that this was not going the way that he had expected, the security guard looked up and frowned meaningfully at the receptionist. With a practiced motion, he adjusted his belt and sniffed loudly.
“...thanks, I’d appreciate it,” Randidly said slowly, following the young woman’s gesture and heading toward the stairs. Behind his back, he felt the young woman stick her tongue out at the security guard behind Randidly and then follow him down the hall and into the stairwell. Scowling, the security guard watched both of their departing figures without saying anything. With light steps, the young woman caught up to him and moved swiftly upward.
For the eight flights of stairs up to the top floor of the Erickson Steel administrative building, both of them remained silent. In fact, Randidly was quite content to send out waves of Aether, continually monitoring the type of people that were housed in this building. It was immediately clear to him that Tatiana had down an impeccable job in personnel selection. Even after casually scanning, he felt several individuals using management or planning Skills that were over one hundred.
That Level wasn’t much compared to Randidly, but since Erickson Steel was a relatively new company, to have so many talented individuals under its roof still seemed impressive. As they moved up the stairs, Randidly idly watched the bobbing of the young woman’s ponytail as his brain gathered and sorted information.
When they reached the top floor, she held the door open for Randidly. After a brief pause, he walked through onto a plush carpet that felt exceedingly delightful to feel on his bare toes. He stretched his toes wide and pressed them deep into the soft maroon cloud on which he was currently floating.
The receptionist's eyes dipped down to land on his feet. Her gaze lingered there so long that Randidly tilted his head to the side and twisted to look at her. Randidly smiled slightly, unsure of what to say in the face of her frank observation.
Her immediate reaction to being caught staring at his feet was to blush. “Ah. Well, what’s the point in having stuff like this is someone doesn’t enjoy it, right? Please have a seat on one of these couches. When Ms. Tatiana’s meeting is over, you can head on in; the rest of her schedule today is free.”
“Are you a gambler?” Randidly asked lightly.
The young woman blinked. The bright amber of her eyes flickered in confusion.
With a small smile, Randidly gestured to himself. “I understand what I look like. It’s a tall order to go out on a limb and believe that I’m the mysterious and absent founder of the company, the titular Erickson. I would understand it if we had met before, but you are a new hire, right? There’s no way we have met. Yet you brought me up here, clearly angering your coworker downstairs. So, are you a gambler?”
The young woman grinned at him. “Maybe we’ve met and I am simply such a minor character that you’ve forgotten.”
“I would remember you,” Randidly said calmly. He turned his Aether scan toward the young woman. Instantly, he felt her Class and Level. Meticulous Technician, Level 37. But Randidly’s attention was immediately drawn to the fact that her Careful Preparations Skill was at Level 179.
Minor character, huh…
The young woman’s smile shrunk. Then she shrugged. “There’s something about your eyes. It feels like you aren’t someone who would lie. At least, that’s what I believe. And besides… with the System, what about life isn’t a gamble?”
Then she closed the door and left Randidly alone with the plush carpet and his delighted toes. Shaking his head, Randidly turned and headed toward Tatiana’s office. If nothing else, he needed to let Tatiana know that it was a waste to have such a talented individual working as a receptionist. And the fact that she had managed to get to Level 37 meant that she wasn’t a slacker when it came to fighting.
As Randidly approached Tatiana’s office, he immediately sensed that it was her and Tykes within. As such, Randidly knocked briefly on the wooden door and then calmly opened it to step through.
Both bodies within turned quickly to face the surprise intruder at the door, but the harsh rebuke that Tatiana was preparing for whoever dared interrupt this meeting died immediately when she saw who pushed open the door. “Baloo!”
Randidly winced. Seeing his reaction, Tykes chuckled and stepped closer to pick Randidly up in a bear hug. “Man, it’s good to see you. Means that we can stop playing around with these fucks.”
Grinning at them both, Randidly said with amusement. “So, we have a problem with the competition? After your messages, I was worried that they were interfering with us directly. But after looking around the factory… honestly, it seems like we are doing well. So what’s the problem?”
“If it was as simple as another business just suppressing us and looking for the formula, don’t you think I would have solved it myself? Have some faith in me… Mr. Ghosthound.” Tatiana said his name with a conscious effort. Then she shook her head. “Competition and pressure we can handle. We’ve dealt with it so far. But recently, they’ve changed their strategy.
“What we can’t compete against… is tariffs. Because Erickson Steel isn’t constructed in the Senate approved industrial districts of Zone 1, raw material suppliers are taxed when they sell to us, a ‘foreign’ business interest. We can pay a little extra for the materials to compensate them for that… but that tactic has been slowly bleeding us of our liquid funds. While we've been petitioning to change the law, we were blindsided by another rule they are trying to pass.”
Tykes grimaced. “There is a bill proposed that would require all foreign business interests to employ government-licensed quality control agent, as we are making industrial-grade metals. In all of Zone 1… Erickson Steel would be the only company affected by this bill. We are being targeted by someone with political power in this Zone.”