For Randidly, the traveling across Zone 1 was the most obnoxious part of the process. And the most time-consuming. He obviously could beat the Manatech rails in a contest of speed, but he wasn’t so much faster than them that it still didn’t take forty-five minutes for him to make the trek to his destination.
Thank god for Aether Detection, Randidly reflected as he sent out a questing pulse of Aether and located his goal. Otherwise, I would just be wandering around in Zone 1’s heartlands… Not exactly the most efficient way to spend my time.
Donnyton had proven that teleportation was possible, but most Villages weren’t raking in the same amount of points for monsters killed as Donnyton was. Therefore, most people preferred to rely on Manatech rails as a way to get around. Because of how relatively small the edges of New Earth was, it was a perfectly efficient decision for the current geography.
And it also didn’t afflict the sensitive with acute motion sickness. For the average person, teleportation was a little bit extreme for their constitution.
Of course, Randidly knew that the real reason that teleportation didn’t take off across all of the Zones was that the option that would make the most logistical sense was to create a hub city for teleportation. All you had to do was have a bunch of cities make teleportation glyphs from their city to some central city. And then if you wanted to go somewhere else, you could simply teleport from the central hub to your true destination.
But none of the political entities were unaware of the value inherent in being the central hub of the network. Which would be defrayed by the exponentially growing cost of maintaining so many portals, but likely not enough to mean it wasn’t worth it.
Randidly wasn’t sure of the exact details, but he had heard once from Mrs. Hamilton that teleporting a single person cost about as many points as were earned from killing a Level 40 monster. And as the strength, and therefore the Aether presence, of an individual increased, that cost went up.
Linearly, but it still meant that high-Level individuals were a drain on resources.
Currently, only Donnyton with its far-flung Squads was raking in enough points to not worry about the cost of teleportation. But no other Zone was willing to allow Donnyton to become the hub city, even if Donnyton was willing to assume the majority of the point cost for the operation of the portal. Donnyton already cast a long shadow as it was. Giving it another advantage was not something the other Zones would do easily.
So Randidly loped across the countryside, heading North and East on his trek to repay a long-promised favor. And to ask for another favor in return.
The whole situation stunk of karma, and Randidly did not like it one bit. But at this point, Randidly had no choice but to accept his debts to Ghost.
During his journey, Randidly stuck to the uninhabited areas; he really had no desire to meet any official representation of Zone 1. He made an extremely large detour to avoid the rather heavy patrols surrounding West Providence before arriving at a small valley situated directly between East and West Providence.
Again, thank god for Aether Detection...
Finally, Randidly arrived and looked down at a picturesque valley with a gurgling stream and a copse of trees. It was a perfect area. So perfect that it Randidly didn’t even need Aether Detection; in this world, such untouched areas meant that something powerful was laying in wait below.
It didn’t take long for him to be hailed; even as Randidly was walking down the gentle slope along the stream, a mechanical bird landed on a large rock to his left and opened its mouth. “So, you’ve finally come. You certainly know how to keep me waiting.”
Randidly chuckled with false cheer. This would go easiest if he didn’t reveal how precarious a situation this was. “Ghost, aren’t you an AI? Doesn’t time become meaningless to you once you transcend the human condition.”
The miniature drone took several hops to keep up with Randidly as he walked down toward the bottom of the valley. “Hmph, you humor remains as haphazard as ever. Although I am casually referred to as artificial intelligence and I truly possess capabilities beyond any single individual, what I truly am is an approximation of artificial intelligence running through several biological brains.
“I was created, but as humans were used as my building blocks, it is hard to say whether my maker truly created intelligent life from nothing or whether he simply did a very poor job of killing the original six bodies that compose me.”
“And your humor is as dark as always,” Randidly responded wryly. It was getting easier to relax. Walking into the copse of trees at the center of the valley, Randidly’s long limbs swung with the casual ease of a sprinter walking toward the starting line. The comparison in his head immediately made Randidly wince, but he turned that motion into a headshake as he passed amongst the tree branches.
Although he didn’t want to carelessly use Infinite Fingers of Yggdrasil and cause the area to burn to the ground, his Skill still gave him an almost immediate understanding of the presence and shape of plant matter. There were no surprises as he passed through the outer layer, and soon Randidly arrived at the inner sanctum of Ghost.
Not a leaf had been disturbed by his passage. Randidly’s eyes flicked sideways to the fluttering small bird. Now that he considered it, he pegged it to have been modeled after a sparrow. “How did you manage to get out from underneath their thumb? Based on the patrols they the have in the area, I would assume they still believe they can keep you under lock and key. It must be reassuring to have such zealous protectors.”
The mechanical sparrow did its best approximation of a chuckle. “They might believe that they can bind me with laws and by carefully observing I have access to, but they are ultimately human. My eyes and hands are everywhere, while their attention is not. It took a while to shave off small portions of metal during my experiments without arousing suspicion, but I was able to create a small drone with some of the Engraving methods you pioneered as a power source. Truly, you have been a lifesaver Then it was just a matter of digging a tunnel so my vulnerable body could escape.”
“Heh, that’s what they get for underestimating you…” Randidly said slowly. His gaze shifted forward. “...and consider the Engraving an unwitting gift from me to you. With the System, the substance can also be the medium for meaning. I was just exploring the bounds of what was possible.”
Does Ghost understand the delicate threads at play here…? Randidly wondered. Certainly, he would have an eye for detail, but how well is his existence prepared for karmic connections…?
In the center of the surrounding trees was a small area with no vegetation. There wasn’t even any grass. There were only dirt and the buzz of electricity. Small mechanical worms seethed together in a rather disgusting pile, crawling in an over one another while their miniature gears whirred.
“Indeed, thanks are in order.” Ghost said easily. Randidly barely suppressed a sigh. Good, if he admitted that he had received something, the fallout of the additional favor might not be as dangerous as Randidly had feared. But just as Randidly was about to speak, the small sparrow opened his mouth once more.
“In fact, I’ve spared no effort to prepare for you some information as payment for all that you have done for me. Would you like to hear it?”
Randidly could only nod.
Ghost continued to speak through his small sparrow as the dirt in the central area was cleared away by the buzzing insects. The longer he spoke, the more Randidly’s hands twisted in claws. “Based on my observations of you, you are preparing to depart from Earth. Obviously, you have done this before; your business is your own. However, I cannot in good conscious allow you to leave without illuminating the current state of our world.
“The threats that seek to force our surrender to the System’s trials are more powerful than it would seem from a casual glance. There have been stirrings around the ogre gorge. I believe that new factions are emerging from that world. In addition, all drones I send to investigate the Toad Realm are immediately cut off from me; someone is screening my gaze. Someone who understands your precious Engraving methods and how to cut them off.
“Let’s not forget that the Nemesai have settled in the Royal Sea, but I have been unable to locate them no matter how hard I try. In addition, we have the addition of the three monsters in the Zone Eleven that are nearing Level 80. I have a feeling… allowing any of the three to reach Level 80 would not be a good idea.”
Randidly bit his lip. The sparrow continued to speak.
“In addition… there are two individuals of note that I am having a lot of difficulty tracking directly, but the trail of death they leave behind is almost insultingly obvious. The first… is, of course, your father, Ezekiel Ghosthound. It seems he could not keep his hands clean once he parted from Hank Howard.”
A thrill of shock went through Randidly’s spine. Then he forced his eyes closed and spoke even though he knew he should remain silent. “Why are you telling me this…?”
Ghost ignored him. By now, a steel panel could be seen in the five-meter deep hole that the worms were quickly clearing. “The last individual… I can only assume he has come from Zone Eleven. But no matter where I research or interview, I can find no trace of him. Of who he was. He’s heading South, directly toward the new Zone at the moment. Those he doesn’t kill are left shaken and mentally deranged. Those he kills have been drained of blood. The only thing I could tear from their lips was a name: Straud.”
Barring his teeth, Randidly walked over to the edge of a hole. “It is generous that you’ve prepared a gift of your own to repay me. But let’s stop dancing around the issue; you predicted that I didn’t just come to give a gift. I need a favor.”
“Favors have costs.” The sparrow on his shoulder hummed softly. “It did not escape my awareness you came here in a hurry. I do not understand karma so well as you, but I have nothing but time right now to consider and plan. But I must stress that I have no desire to force the issue of repayment. I have no wish to antagonize you. I expect to enjoy a long and fruitful partnership with you, Randidly Ghosthound.”
Randidly considered that and nodded slowly. Even though the resonance between their images was not very strong, Randidly could see the earnest honesty of Ghost through the small tremors in the air around Ghost. It was possible that Ghost was deceiving Randidly and would use the karma between them to force Randidly’s hand. But it was true that Randidly was no longer dealing with Lucretia or The Spearman.
Forcing himself to relax, Randidly nodded again with much more vigor. “...understood. For this, and for everything else that you’ve done, I will owe you one favor going forward. A favor that I will pay in a timely manner when you bring it to my attention. But I would add that I’ve carefully refined my past plans; you won’t be disappointed in your new body.”
“Excellent.” The sparrow hopped twice in place in a visible demonstration of glee. Randidly wondered how much of it was a show for his benefit.
“...I just have one last question before I give you the promised gift: how well can Earth handle the threats you mentioned?”
“One last test? You’ve become increasingly preachy.” The sparrow fluttered up onto Randidly’s shoulder. As Randidly watched, the mechanical worms scuttled off one another and revealed the exposed metal canister. “But fine. As I implied, I believe it is extremely precarious. Most of these threats are ones I don’t understand. And that is exactly why I have been behaving so cautiously.”
Randidly smiled sharply. “This isn’t me asking for anything. I’m just speaking aloud to myself. You are right, I’m leaving; I don't know when I’ll be back. This new body of yours possesses a gleaming sword that can cut through the night. I just hope that heroes will step up in my place while I’m gone.”
The sparrow looked at Randidly for a long time. Its eyes were blade and brown. But there was a weight there that hadn’t been present previously. Ghost’s almost obsessive yearning seemed to set the images in the surrounding area buzzing. Randidly could feel how much this trapped and artificial being craved just that.
Randidly kept himself from smiling; to make light of another’s dream was not something he wanted to do. Neither did he want to reveal that he had predicted that Ghost’s reaction would be just this. So he stared seriously forward and waited.
But Randidly couldn’t deny he would feel a lot better about owing Ghost a favor if he chose the Path of a hero. Randidly couldn’t force it, but this was just a nudge in that direction.
Finally, the sparrow tilted its head to the side. “...acknowledge. So, while you provide me a body, tell me; what is it that Randidly Ghosthound needs now?”
Randidly grinned brightly. “Help me make the impossible, possible.”