Randidly sat on the windswept plains among the long shadows of twilight and watched the dawn come.
The light splashed like liquid over the horizon and flowed up the low slope to the sporadic bunches of grass below Randidly. Gravity had no effect on that light, it was simply a hungry expansion up into space.
When the light finally touched upon his bare feet, it was so incredibly warm that Randidly couldn’t resist a smile. The feeling of the sun flowing across his skin was one of the rare pleasures that Randidly often didn’t have time to experience. But now, a few hours after he had given his speech and immersed himself in the thick image of Erickson Steel, Randidly believed he deserved the treat.
In about an hour, Randidly would meet up with Wendy and they would begin the bulk of the assembly work on the small and intricate parts for the moving city. They couldn’t do the actual assembly due to the impending arrival of the government inspection team, but honestly, the final construction portion of the work would be a walk in the park in comparison to the assembly of all the minute bits.
Randidly scratched his head. For what felt like the tenth time since he had agreed with Tatiana to make a deal with the government, Randidly had second thoughts. This was just an added difficulty. There wasn’t really any meaning in playing this game with the government. Not when Randidly planned on basically ignoring most governmental entities going forward.
Yet still, Randidly felt like he had no other choice.
Perhaps it was his growing sense of responsibility as a leader, but Randidly felt like it was important that his word had weight. Maybe it would be more accurate to frame the issue in terms of images. Randidly wanted to make sure the image of Erickson Steel became powerful. And he hesitated to make the first definitive action of the new Erickson Steel a dishonest one when it might have consequences for the image.
Especially when the image Randidly was aiming for was tiptoeing along a knife-edge’s worth of morality. Pushing it toward dishonesty was a recipe for disaster.
Randidly pressed his eyes closed and enjoyed the tingling light that flowed up his arms and touched his face. The agreement with the Zone 1 government put constraints on the construction timeline, but it was nowhere near as problematic as Randidly’s Judgment that would come in thirteen days.
That was the real guillotine that loomed above his head. Mostly because he wasn’t sure how long it would take until he was able to return. Chulroon only warned of the method of the Judgment; he could offer no guidance to the timeline. And Randidly still hadn’t forgotten about the warning from Octavius-
The sound of shouts reached Randidly’s ears, pulling him back to his present moment sitting in the sun on the grassy slope. Although the future might not be, the present moment was idyllic. Randidly turned toward the South. Then a wry grin spread across his face.
The noises were from the Order Ducis training camp. The break period offered by Naffur so that the Order Ducis could develop some positive affection toward Erickson Steel had passed; they were back to training like dogs on treadmills lined with landmines. If Randidly had some free time, he planned on heading over and assisting with the training. Or rather, he had been. But now a strange, new concern made Randidly hesitate.
Vye hadn’t come to meet him as he had requested after his speech.
Leaning back, Randidly released a sigh. Was she not able to find me…? But I would think with her Skills, it would be easy to track me down… and I let Tatiana know where I would be… maybe I was too vague with my offer? I should have just stated that I would remake her Class so it would make use of that strange power in her hand…
When he had met Vye, what had surprised Randidly the most was how divided her image was. Vye was one of the more difficult images to read, probably because she didn’t identify strongly enough as part of one of Randidly’s organizations. There wasn’t an implicit sympathy between them as Randidly had found with some other individuals. But he felt her quiet competence and deep yearning from her action and stance easily enough.
From her, Randidly felt the sound of pen scribbling on paper, the heat of molten metal, and the drawn-out silence of a mind carefully sifting through a multitude of possibilities. In addition, her left hand an exacting image of restraint and faith that burned in Randidly’s vision like a bonfire floating in the middle of a lake.
The contrast between that bold and burning with her competent calculations had certainly given Randidly pause.
Yet there was a rift between Vye’s quiet competence and the strange faith of her left hand. It fascinated Randidly. Honestly, he was the only individual that he had ever encountered that had several very different images housed in the same body. For obvious reasons, most people simply focused their attention on creating and maintaining a single image.
The duality that Vye possessed reminded Randidly of himself. Which was why he had decided to give her some assistance in merging those images.
And of course, she hadn’t shown up.
Is that a rejection…? Should I look into it…? Do I really have any spare time…?
Grinning upward toward the sun, Randidly wondered when the last time was that he had felt this peculiar brand of hesitation. Now, Randidly could sense that Vye was over training with the Order Ducis at the moment. She hadn’t run away, she still remained within his sphere of influence. Was she somehow busy with something else? Or had she deliberately chosen not to meet him?
It wasn’t like he wanted to force her to change her Class. It was just rather aggravating not to understand what had happened.
Her eyes had been as playful and golden as a cat’s in the dark alley, and she had said ‘I’m surprised you remembered me.’
“Bah, I don’t have time for this,” Randidly grumbled. He pressed his hands against the ground and flexed his fingers; the force threw him up onto his feet. There was a more pressing issue that needed to be considered.
After giving the speech, Randidly’s Crown of Upheaval and Gloom Skill had a thin crack running through it. As the image network Randidly was building inside of himself expanded, the violence of its resonance intensified. Ultimately, the Crown was a static thing; it was not designed to serve as a conduit for the images. It was just a focal point.
With Randidly’s abundant Aether, he had plenty of confidence that he would be able to force the destruction to serve as a launching pad to evolve into another Skill. But what he currently needed was to decide on the direction that Skill would go. What image should Randidly use as the base…?
Humming to himself, Randidly considered the possibilities while he began to walk toward the assembly area. For now, even if he couldn’t find the perfect answer at the moment, he didn’t have time to waste. He had a meeting with Wendy, and she was always extremely resentful when he arrived late.
“Is this true?” Senator Heathridge asked.
Evan Crane nodded stoically. “Yes. After the Ghosthound gave his speech, it was announced that the Order Ducis had put out a bounty out on all Danger Zones. If they are cleared and the option to increase the rate that the entire population gains experience… Erickson Steel will provide that individual or group with one ton of the highest quality metal for free. Metal that was smelted by the Ghosthound himself. In addition, the Order Ducis will owe the successful clearer one favor, ‘expendable for the good of the Earth.’”
“Does he know about the Cyclops Initiative, I wonder…?” Senator Heathridge mused. “Truly, Randidly Ghosthound’s ability to gather information is staggering. Perhaps I have completely misunderstood the man. The rumors focus on his strength… but it is his ability to make connections that’s truly frightening.”
Crane kept his mouth shut and focused on the terminal’s glossy frame. For the first time in longer that Crane would care to admit, his fingers were not twitching to grab a cigarette. In fact, his hands clasped together with such vehemence that his arms were trembling.
After listening to Randidly Ghosthound’s speech… Crane felt weird. And if Senator Heathridge hadn’t insisted upon a debriefing, Crane likely would have found some space and solitude in order to examine the jumbled mess of feelings in his chest. Of course, he couldn’t let the Senator see even the slightest hint of his emotions.
To a spider-like Heathridge, such things were nothing but weakness. And weak tools were discarded without a second thought.
What is it that you fear the most, Senator Heathridge? Crane wondered.
“So,” Heathridge said, cutting back to the reason for the call. “After listening to Randidly Ghosthound’s speech, what can you tell me about the man? I have other informants in Erickson Steel, but it seems that they are all too busy with the surge of activity afterward in order to give me their findings in a short amount of time.”
Of course, they haven’t reported. They are probably dealing with the same thing I am. Crane thought bitterly. I know it’s just propaganda… but I can’t get that image out of my head. That Randidly Ghosthound has been walking alone into the darkness, toiling away to mine the secrets of the System. And now Erickson Steel has been invited to join him in that vast darkness, struggling to protect the world even if he will never be thanked for it.
Because it needs to be done. Because sometimes it is necessary that someone walks directly toward the maw of their fear so that the weaker among us have the image of a reassuring back ahead of them…
Shaking his head slightly, Crane licked his lips. Then his tongue flicked out again as he tried to gather his thoughts into something coherent. “He… it’s a lot of propaganda. About the noble Path of Erickson Steel, standing on the cutting edge of humanity. Of opening the way forward.”
Senator Heathridge’s sneer was clear in his voice. “Oh, does he truly believe that he can revolutionize the world by simply having steel that’s a little better than the competition? But based on your voice, he is a talented orator. Ha! Let’s see how long the population will remember that little pile of rhetoric.”
Crane thought about trying to explain that what Randidly had been speaking about wasn’t steel; metal and industry had barely come up at all throughout the speech. It was about fear and Paths.
And Crane also considered explaining that it wasn’t the ringing words that swayed the entire crowd, him included. It was the image that Randidly projected that was still gleaming and precious within Crane’s chest, several hours later.
But Crane said nothing. He just hoped Senator Heathridge was right about this feeling passing with time. Otherwise…