“We cannot press the charges,” Senator Heathridge said over the phone. Overhead, a thunderstorm boomed noisily. On the line, there was a thin whine of static.
Evan Crane couldn’t believe his ears. “They… they were foolish enough to publicly assault the police of Zone 1. They refused to comply with an investigation in the face of a court order. More than that, that monstrous woman enforcer they hired made it abundantly that Erickson Steel has no intention of respecting the police force of this country! There is no way the bureau will let this go. And with them on our side-”
“Which is why we will force them to drop it.” The Senator said quietly. Then he sighed for several seconds, an unwilling admittance of a bone-deep weariness that wafted out of the phone terminal between them. For the first time since they began working together, Senator Heathridge seemed like he had given up. “It is out of our hands. I was… completely blindsided. Erickson Steel’s plan… perhaps Randidly Ghosthound’s… it’s… I....”
The other man trailed off into silence.
“So just like that, we are giving up…?” Evan Crane clenched his hands into veiny fists. Every time that Erickson Steel barely managed to avoid falling into his grasp, Evan had gnashed his teeth but he had been able to ultimately control his anger. After all, Evan knew that this was only a short term avoidance. With the support of Senator Heathridge and Evan pulling the strings from the shadows, there was no way for Erickson Steel to resist falling into his grasp.
It was even finally looking up for their plan. They had painted Erickson Steel into a corner. They had several tricks up their sleeve, but they had been forced to blow those tricks in order to escape Evan’s traps. But now-
But now, in the Senator’s voice… Evan heard defeat.
I will never let this go, Evan thought, his eyes twitching as he glared hatefully at the terminal.
“...It’s honestly the most exquisite thing that I’ve ever encountered. Truly, this spells doom for our original course of action.” Suddenly, there was something very strange in Senator’s Heathridge’s voice. “But since we found out his ultimate goal so early… Well, it’s not like we have no avenues available to us.”
Evan’s sea of anger parted. A ray of light pierced through the storm clouds overhead and loosed its light over his body. Coughing out his long-held breath, Evan stammered, “So, then…?”
“But I need time to prepare our counterstroke.” Senator Heathridge’s tone changed. “Half measures will be useless. And I have to admit, it was only after investigating the movements of some of my fellow Senators that I was able to spot the trap that he had laid… and it is certainly was so seamlessly woven into our offensive against them that I almost missed it.”
After a pause, the Senator continued. “What ultimately tipped me off was how silent my enemies had been over the past several weeks; I thought I had finally built up some momentum, but even then they had been too passive. I am not so prideful to give my enemies any opening, so I did so research.
“And when I examined the facts, one definitive possibility remained; they were simply biding their time. Because when I scrutinized the schedules of some of the neutral Senators… well, there was one commonality; they had all visited Erickson Steel within the last week.”
“...well didn’t they need to?” Evan asked, slowly easing away from his anger. Out of habit, he picked up a cigarette and lit it. As long as he was quiet, there shouldn’t be any way for the Senator to find out. “After Erickson Steel pulled their branches… Hell, I would want to come in person to confirm that the business wasn’t about to fail. Especially for the Senators, who probably rely on a lot of industries that use Erickson Steel.”
“Exactly! That’s why we missed the insidious truth.” Senator Heathridge’s voice dropped to a whisper slithering out of the terminal. “We were so focused on the costs that Erickson Steel would incur… we never considered the benefits of such a bold arrangement. Such as providing a convenient excuse for many important political figures to meet clandestinely with the leader of Erickson Steel.”
As the Senator continued to speak, that strange trace in his voice grew and grew. “I hadn’t put much stock in the news that the Ghosthound had returned to the business, but in light of this brilliant plan, I have no choice but to admit that I’m dancing with someone far superior to me. The man is truly a kingmaker; it is no fluke that Senator Firefly has risen so sharply to prominence. And now that Randidly Ghosthound has had private meetings with the neutral faction, I can begin to see the shape of his plan. Erickson Steel is just a stepping stone for him. A convenient front.”
“Erickson Steel is not just-” Evan Crane grunted, but by this point, Senator Heathridge was on a roll. It was like the other man was so wrapped up in his explanation that he didn't even hear Evan’s interruption. And it sounded like Senator Heathridge was starting to breathe heavily.
“This was never about the company… this was about so much more than that… Three of the most innocuous Senators that came here to speak about the steel… had one very specific thing in common: they were the ringleaders of the Western Coalition.
“You likely have not have heard, but big changes are coming through for the political sphere of Earth. Although Donnyton has been quiet… Zone Seven’s push for the governments to come together and name a world capital is gaining more and more traction abroad. Most of the Orders have been waiting for the Order Ducis to make a move, but they are leaning strongly toward choosing a location and centralizing authority. It would simplify their jobs immensely”
“And yet…” Evan murmured. Oddly, the emotion that he finally recognized in the Senator’s tone was worship. “What does this have to do with Erickson Steel?”
“Come off it, Crane,” Senator Heathridge scoffed. “It might be the current leader in metallurgy, but how long will that last? We have squeezed their ore supply down to a trickle. Even if they had a secret recipe for another metal that could revolutionize the current standard, how long will it take for our scientists to crack their formula? We already realize that the metal is made by mixing the bones of monsters into the alloy. The rest is inevitable.“
“It’s the center of everything. Erickson Steel. We always said that… My… my plan…” Now Evan Crane’s voice dropped to a whisper. Surreptitiously he lit another the cigarette and pulled as hard as he could. His hands were trembling.
“That’s why it was such a genius move of Randidly Ghosthound to sacrifice it,” Senator Heathridge hissed. “It sparked so brilliantly our eyes were fixed upon it. But this whole time… he was playing us for fools. By placing the company directly in our crosshairs, he’s been able to hide all of his true moves in Congress. If I hadn’t gone back through the travel schedules of the prominent members of Congress… hehehe… it’s such a bold stroke…”
While Senator Heathridge seemed to be caught up in some emotion halfway between awe and envy, Evan Crane struggled to control his much more violent emotions. He knew Heathridge; although he currently was caught up in some fixation, the man was still incredibly intelligent. He simply wasn’t seeing that Randidly Ghosthound wasn’t the problem. It was Erickson Steel itself that provided such value.
But Evan couldn’t just say that outright and point out how strange it was. Heathridge was too arrogant to admit he was wrong. Instead, it was better to try and lead Senator there with guided logic.
Pushing the cigarette smoke out through his nose, Evan asked. “Perhaps this is just a ploy… but what does Erickson Steel resisting the police have to do with other Zones trying to make a world capital? Randidly Ghosthound possibly meeting with these Senators… what does it all mean? Do we have any proof of this?”
“The proof is in the pure genius,” Senator Heathridge breathed. “All the pieces we’ve already seen from Erickson Steel, we just didn’t understand the shape. We thought they were solving a puzzle, but they were building a palace. Even I… until I received a bit of intel from the West. The new Zone… contact has been established. They are… currently under the protection of the Western Coalition. After making the hundred-kilometer journey, on foot, without any difficulty, in only two days. A journey that had them coming up South, past Lake Apollo.”
Evan blinked slowly. “That… was the direction that the Ghosthound was last sighted heading.”
“So let me put it plainly for you.” Senator Heathridge ground his teeth at such an intensity that Evan could hear it over the phone for several seconds. Only then, with his deep frustrations vented, did he speak. “The Western Coalition has been trying to convince the Zone Transportation Board to expand its network in the West for months to fuel industrial growth in the region. We, the opposition, have opposed such a measure to specifically isolate Erickson Steel in the Western Region.
“Suddenly, out of nowhere, Randidly Ghosthound appears and, allegedly within a night, produces an Engraving pattern for a train car that revolutionizes the energy consumption. After that, Erickson Steel provides the schematics to the ZTB for no charge and they are suddenly the best of friends. Without missing a beat, Erickson Steel makes no use of this newfound relationship capital. Instead, they make the inexplicable decision to close all of their branches.
“We thought they were on the run or planning some sort of move. But what this really did was drag some Senators in crucial positions to the Erickson Steel Headquarters. Where Randidly Ghosthound met them and explained his proposition. If they helped him with his true goal, he would provide them the push to expand the manatech rails in their territory. After all, Erickson Steel now had the ear of the ZTB. And what better cherry to sweeten the dessert than telling about the newly connected Zone?
“Then Randidly Ghosthound headed South. For all that he has been a mystery, no one denies that he is definitely a very high Level. He has more than enough strength to assist the expedition from the new Zone in making it through the badlands to arrive at Zone 1. Where they are conveniently found and protected by members of the Western Coalition. Picked up as if they had known they were coming the entire time…”
Evan Crane licked his lips. “But, there is one thing that I don’t understand. I… I can see the moves. I can even see sort of how Randidly would offer these things to all of these different entities. But… but what does he want? And also… why did he choose to antagonize the police? As long as he stays in Zone 1, that will come back to bite him.”
For several long seconds, Senator Heathridge just laughed. It was a low and throaty laugh of a man experiencing immense satisfaction at the confusion of another. It was condescending and spiteful. Evan lit up two more cigarettes, struggling to control his temper. Based on the abrupt uptick in laughter, the Senator had heard him. Evan’s face burned in silent fury.
“All men want the same thing, Evan.” Senator Heathridge finally said. “Power. Is it really so strange to think that after Randidly went away for almost six months, he returned to find that someone had taken the reigns of power he once wielded in Donnyton? And that made him furious.”
“Randidly Ghosthound famously has no interest in political power,” Evan said reasonably.
Senator Heathridge laughed again. “Bullshit. They took his power and he punished them for it. Then he came here. The Orders follow the Order Ducis, who follows him. He antagonized the surrounding areas, fooling us into raising the foreign propaganda against Erickson Steel. No one wants him here any longer. He already had Senator Firefly in his pocket, but now he’s bought the support of the Western Coalition… and likely he already has an agreement with this new Zone.”
Chewing on the cigarettes in his mouth, Evan tried to slow the flow of the conversation to something manageable. “But-”
Senator Heathridge didn’t allow Evan to finish. “So when Zone Seven pushes for a World Capital… and Randidly Ghosthound steps forward and offers some of the extensive lands he owns around the Erickson Steel Headquarters… will there be a unified enough resistance to stop the suggestion? His is the most famous name on Earth.”
Evan Crane shook his head wordlessly. Although there was a certain sort of twisted logic to it, he just felt that this wasn’t right. This… this didn’t match the reports about Randidly Ghosthound at all.
But the Senator clearly had been quite taken with this grand scheme. “He offers up a pitiable steel mill in one hand… and he palms the world capital right out from under our noses. Truly… this is the first time that I’ve ever admired someone. This is the first time… I’ve ever truly met my match.”