“So…” Randidly frowned at Tatiana and Tykes. The two both wore extremely depressed expressions as they explained what Erickson Steel endured over the last few months. “They want us to move the headquarters?”
“Maybe at the beginning, but now that they own our debt they have gotten greedy,” Tatiana said grimly. “They want control of production; luckily they can’t change the terms of the mortgage without us having a legal out, but they’ve done their best to eliminate our options. And as long as everything runs under your name-”
“They… own our debt?” Randidly looked over at Tykes. “Are we deeply in debt? I guess the new expansion is pretty big… Well anyway, if they are so obviously refusing to be civil, why do we even bother paying this targeted tax?”
“If we don’t, the suppliers can’t do business with us,” Tatiana said. “In addition, the government would take any excuse to send ‘investigators’ to Erickson Steel headquarters and look over the process. When they talk about the Erickson Steel formulate, they treat it like a national treasure that we are selfishly using for our own gain. If we even stick a toe out of line-”
“Do we truly fear them that much? How strong are they?” Randidly asked, his eyebrows rising.
Tykes immediately chuckled and Tatiana just looked at him with wide eyes. After cracking his knuckles, Tykes seated himself in one of the two wide leather couches along the wall.
“Randidly… with all due respect.” Tatiana said slowly. She spread her hands wide. “It’s not about strength. Or at least, it's not about fighting strength. This is our government. If we take an antagonistic stance, there are a thousand ways they could harass us and make our lives difficult. They have the ability to make laws. In addition, military bases are a significant portion of our sales; they buy some of our specialty drones in bulk. Without them, it will be difficult to make enough of a profit to pay the tariffs.”
“So we don’t pay the tariffs. Isn’t that what I said?” Randidly cracked his neck in irritation. Of course, as soon as he left Donnyton with a bitter heart, he would encounter a pointless situation like this. While he was away, it seemed that the threat of Randidly Ghosthound meant less and less in Zone 1.
If they think I’ll remain passive because I did in the past, they are fools. Neither of my images will allow this disrespect to go unpunished. Randidly barred his teeth at his hands. It wasn’t ideal, but Randidly felt like there was no point in being civil if Zone 1 was willing to rely on the heavyweight of contracts and societal pressure to bind him.
Hell, even if Tatiana had sold the soul of the company to the devil, I would just head to hell and kill him to take it back. Randidly thought darkly. I acted previously to stabilize society because that’s what I thought I needed. But now I know we need to stop playing these games and work on growing stronger. If Zone 1 refuses to take the hint...
“I’m not sure if you understand-” Tatiana tried again, but Randidly waved her silent.
Randidly did understand. He understood that his disrespect for the rule of law on Earth was dangerous and subversive. On the one hand, he might be able to get away with it due to his status as the Ghosthound. But if other organizations became aware of it, they would wonder whether breaking those bonds of decency would be worth it.
That could lead to more infighting and weakening the Earth even further. What Randidly was considering now was extremely risky. And yet…
In his heart, the heavy image of the Grim Chimera stirred just slightly. Immediately, Randidly released a breath and forced that part of him to relax. After seeing the collapse of Tellus, Randidly had no hope that he could completely maintain the stability of Earth in the face of the Calamities.
Better to risk it and protect the valuable portions. And to him, and to the forgers of Earth, Erickson Steel was extremely valuable.
“This is going to be hard for you to understand… I actually believed your method was the better one until not long ago. But now…” Randidly looked down at his hands once more. Although Randidly was very careful not to allow his images to stir again, his arms still warped into the wicked weapons of the Grim Chimera before his very eyes. The air smelled like ashes and dried blood. “We don’t have to play nice. We are going to refuse to pay their taxes and ignore their agents.
“Plus… if they force the issue, we can always leave.” Randidly finished.
The other two people in the room just looked at him for several seconds. Finally, Tykes flexed his hands with a grin plastered on his face. “Thank god. I’m so tired of just letting these slugs crawl all over us without doing anything about it.”
Sighing, Tatiana asked. “Where will we get raw materials then? Our process will grind to a halt without a constant stream of materials.”
Randidly sent Helen a message to keep an eye out for any sort of ore veins. And if she couldn’t get any results in a short amount of time, he could just move himself to search. “I’ll handle it. When it comes to locating things within the ground, I have a fair amount of confidence. Is there anything else? Any other way they are messing with us?”
“It’s not so much messing with us…” Tykes said as his lip curled upward. “But most of our workers get rather constant headhunter calls. Most need to leave their cell phones in their locker so that they don’t get distracted while working.”
Certainly, Zone 1 is much closer to the way Earth used to be… Randidly thought to himself. Spam callers and cellphones…
Then he shook his head to dislodge his idle wonderings about the dangers of technology and instead focused on the issue at hand. What did he actually want to accomplish? If he would only spoil the image of Earth with his interference, then his focus on helping Earth could either shift into general instruction or by providing powerful materials. However, when Randidly saw his Paths that would enable him to instruct individuals earlier, he hadn’t felt any sort of desire.
Instead, Randidly found himself smiling much more widely as he imagined stealing away this entire factory and becoming an independent provider.
If he didn’t have to remain close to civilization, it was better to maintain some space. Randidly had absolutely no interest in creating some sort of super martial artist school, to help teach the people of this world how to fight. Even if all Randidly attempted to do was raise the strength of some teachers, it would still be incredibly time-consuming in the short term. And a hassle to improve the power of these teachers without relying on images.
No, it was better if he could use images freely. And the only way that would be safe was to isolate Randidly’s base of operations from the other emerging images. If he ran away from taxes and tariffs at the same time… well, that was just a happy coincidence.
“I already planned on calling over some friends to apply some pressure… I’ll get them to stop the calls. But also… How easy would it be to simply move?” Randidly asked.
“Impossible,” came Tatiana’s immediate answer. “That debt you seemed so dismissive of earlier was spent reinforcing the ground in the surrounding area so we could expand in the future. It was an investment. In addition, we’ve done a lot of groundwork here to ensure that Erickson Steel can accomplish everything on sight. Without the ability to simply lift up the land and carry it away with us, Erickson Steel will lose a lot by moving.”
“Something like that…” Randidly tapped his cheek. There was a thing layer of stubble there, he noticed. He should shave soon.
Randidly could forcefully pick up and move the facilities it with Mana, but it would become a constant drain on his attributes. Still, he thought it would be rather interesting if he could manage to turn Erickson Steel into a mobile business. Although Randidly didn’t want to casually use the Skill, maybe spending some time refining a Soulseed for that purpose would be for the best…?
Again, Randidly shook his head. “Leave the details for later. What about the employees? How many people work here? How willing would they be to leave Zone 1?”
“If you got us out of here, don’t be surprised if some of the people praise you like a god,” Tykes muttered. “There would be a holiday named after you.”
“It’s dramatic, but…” Tatiana rolled her eyes and walked to the cupboard. From it, she removed three crystal glasses and a full bottle of liquor. A finger of amber liquid was poured into each glass, and then Tatiana offered one of the glasses each to Randidly and Tykes. Without even thanking her, Tykes took the liquid and threw back the shot.
Tykes smacked his lips as he lowered his glass onto the desk with an audible clink. “Ahhh, I never get tired of that. Did you get another shipment from Donnyton?”
Tatiana nodded and offered it to Randidly, who took it curiously. He held the liquid up to the light and studied the color. Strangely, it lightened almost to the point of appearing luminous when put beneath lights. It was less amber and more a brilliant butter color.
It reminded Randidly of the receptionist's eyes.
As Randidly considered the liquid, Tatiana continued to speak. “A rough way to put it… but Tykes isn’t wrong. A lot of our workers opted to switch to Erickson Steel because the government-sponsored industrial complexes are poorly managed hell holes. It seems that they mistakenly believed that since the System prevented illnesses, there was no real need to develop sufficient sanitation facilities.
“And when the word was spread that Erickson Steel was given a ‘foreign’ designation, there have been some… retaliation against us. Not by the government. But by regular people. Being considered foreign, are workers are classified so they aren’t able to obtain any citizenship other than probationary. Often, Erickson Steel workers are refused service at restaurants and stores. Which is why we built up more infrastructure here, so most people can just live in our facilities without worry.”
Randidly’s expression darkened. It took an effort of will to keep his Crown of Upheaval and Gloom from making an appearance at that moment. After all, Erickson Steel was ultimately his. These were his people. To hear that they were being discriminated against immediately set his teeth on edge. Especially after his own drawn-out experiences trying to gain citizenship in Zone 1.
“They… classify our employees?” Randidly said softly.
Tatiana grimaced. “Honestly, it’s a good thing for us. If the effect wasn’t permanent, more people would be tempted to switch over. But mostly its a recent law passed to keep us from expanding any further…”
While thinking about the callous actions of the Zone 1 government, Randidly rapidly composed a message and sent it to Naffur, requesting that he pack up and head South to assist in the Erickson Steel as soon as possible. In addition, Randidly added that he planned on establishing an official base for the Order Ducis.
Then, as an afterthought, Randidly recalled that Naffur came up out of the Orchard. In a second message, Randidly requested Naffur arrange for a new batch of recruits be picked from the Orchard’s lottery system, with the possibility of entering the Order Ducis as a reward.
Those recruits, of course, would come and work for Erickson Steel in the meantime.
When Randidly’s gaze refocused on Tatiana, she noticed his attention and continued to speak. “In terms of number, there are about 600 people living and working on the Erickson Steel campus. About as many again that work in our delivery side, taking our materials and transporting them to different locations. Plus, we have branch members working in most major cities…”
“Well, pull them all back,” Randidly said offhandedly. They needed to reestablish their relationship with the world if they wanted to quickly shake off these annoyances from bothering Erickson Steel. Best to do that from a consolidated state.
As Randidly watched Tatiana slowly turn increasingly pale as she considered the implications of what he just said, Randidly finally took a drink of the liquor that she had given to him. Immediately, a tingling sense of numbness spread across his mouth. Randidly grinned in pleasure.
Not only was the alcohol strong enough to affect his powerful physical body, but he could also immediately feel the tyrannical possessiveness in his heart that demanded retribution against these bugs slowly ease and relax. The anger and vindictive emotions became foggy and drifted away, no longer urging his images to mobilize.
Randidly finished the rest of the glass, enjoying the tingling numbness that spread down to his throat. Honestly, the feeling was quite a lot like having his face touched by the Tinglesilk Gloves…
Even though she was still gritting her teeth, Tatiana recovered enough to speak. “I can see why you would want to lessen the avenues the Zone 1 government can use to strike back… but if we recall our people, we will not sell metal. Without sales, we have no money. Without money, we cannot pay our workers or the bank. We will starve ourselves without those branches in operation.”
“How much better is Erickson Steel than its competitors?” Randidly asked with a small smile.
Tatiana bristled at the question. “Of course, as much as 20% better in turns of strength or reliability at the top end. Less so in the middling products. But-”
“Then won’t people come here on their own accord? Unless they want to use inferior metals.” Randidly said casually. He, too, was unsure if it would work out perfectly, but there were some things that you could only learn by acting. Worrying about it would help not at all.
Besides… He lifted his gaze and peered out a nearby window toward the horizon. Although he looked, what Randidly was really doing was expanding the scope of his Aether scans to scan the nearby train tracks. The tools are all there. All it takes is a Crown and the will to bear its weight.
Very quickly, he found what he was looking for and turned back to Tatiana. “Also, look into getting a working train car for our track. As soon as possible. Customers will need an easy way to get here, for as long as we are going to remain at this location- actually, no, never mind. I’ll take care of it personally.”
“There is another problem,” Tatiana was shaking her head rapidly now, her soft brown hair bouncing wildly. “All trail lines are technically the property of the Zone One government. Possessing a train car is not illegal, but selling or buying one is. We cannot-”
“Tatiana, I won’t be buying a train car.” Randidly sighed. “I get it. You have guided Erickson Steel well; even while targeted on all sides. I can see how difficult it has been. While you were doing that, you could only rely on your wits. Erickson Steel would cease to be if you did not take all the right steps. You played by the rules. But now… we don’t need to play by the rules any longer. I can deal with the consequences.”
It would be much easier to just produce one himself.
Tatiana was quiet for several seconds, looking at Randidly with a confused gaze. “...what does that even mean?”
Tykes hands flexed, as though he was imagining squeezing his huge iron ball. “It means it's time to run wild.”