Senator Cliff Heathridge poured himself a cup of coffee and then added a single sugar and a spoonful of cream in a single concise motion. With his teaspoon, he then stirred the cup counter-clockwise four times. The pure white of the cream swirled in the chestnut of the coffee to make caramel.
After he lifted the spoon out of the mixture, Senator Heathridge watched the liquid continuing to rotate for a few seconds before stopping. He felt the heat of the coffee through the cup in his hand. Then he set the spoon down on his napkin and lifted the coffee to his lips.
He didn’t drink but took a deep whiff of the thick steam that wafted upward from the coffee. A smile spread slowly across his face as his nose parsed apart the different scents presented to it. Then he sat the porcelain cup down on its saucer. Truly, even though Senator Heathridge hadn’t taken a drink, the quality of the beans was immediately obvious. But the fact that he could tell the quality without a taste wasn’t the point.
When Senator Heathridge’s assistant heard the distinctive tinkling of the porcelain on the saucer, she looked up at him and smiled. “Enjoying the coffee, Senator?”
“Of course, Margaret.” Senator Heathridge said with a smile as he turned his attention back to the documents on his desk. His assistant smiled shyly back at him and then returned to her own work. “Of course.”
The point was that it didn’t matter whether or not he actually took a sip of the coffee; the only thing that mattered was whether his assistant believed that he did. That was a lesson that he learned from the knee of Randidly Ghosthound. That was the power of image. It was the power to make the impossible possible.
That’s how I can finally reach Randidly Ghosthound. That’s how I can slow him down.
After moving his cup to the side, the Senator stood and walked to the window. Outside, a gardener was trimming the hedges of a manicured courtyard. All on the taxpayer's dime, of course. When he moved, his assistant looked up and made a pained face at him.
“Senator, your plumber called again. I believe he wants to set up a meeting to talk about your piping.”
Evan Crane called again eh? It seems like he has noticed that Randidly will move soon as well… but he still could be useful.
“See what his schedule looks like. If he can move today, tell him to meet me at my summer home. Hopefully, I can get the problem fixed before I need to entertain or I’ll be the laughing stock of Congress.”
His assistant nodded and turned back to type away at her terminal. But the senator remained at the window, watching the workmanlike movements of the gardener.
Senator Heathridge had been fifty-six when the System arrived. Depending on who you asked, Senator Heathridge possessed the good luck to have been transported into a Zone. He hadn’t been senior enough in the Senate at the time to have received word of the System’s impending arrival beforehand, but that didn’t bother him much.
In actual fact, at most 5% of the individuals who knew what was coming lived through the initial month of chaos and bloodshed. Meanwhile, later statistical analysis indicated that the average individual had about an 8% chance of surviving through the first month. It seemed that foreknowledge was one thing, but that very knowledge had made people underestimate the threat that was to come.
After all, who would have truly believed what was coming would change everything as it did?
Surprise brought with it the added benefit of caution. So many of the powerful men who thought they understood would the System was had been butchered because of their arrogance. Their deaths served as the first lesson Senator Heathridge had learned on his path to power.
Despite the fact he was getting on in years, Senator Heathridge had was motivated by ample ambition and an exacting practicality that saw him steadily rising in the ranks of the Senate while his more robust fellows left the board rooms and carried weapons to protect their families. A necessary task, but one that left a power vacuum in an already extremely depleted field. Politics, after all, was an old man’s game. When the System decimated and confused most of his peers, Senator Heathridge’s mind had seen it for what it truly was.
As society struggled to stem the tide of monsters, Senator Heathridge had surged into action. He had almost beggared himself to send aid to the military, the research-industrial complex of East Providence, and also the police forces across the Zone. He had shipped out weapons and bullets by the tons. But his contributions to the Zone didn’t stop there.
Through some less than ethical experiments on his underlings, Senator Heathridge had quickly determined some of the more efficient avenues to Skills and Paths. This he used to lead himself to his modest current Level of 41, but it was really the elites that Senator Heathridge nurtured that had shined for the longest time. His first response team was the rock Zone 1 needed while they struggled against their Tribulation.
The memory of that bloody fight had even a seasoned politician like Heathridge grimacing. He turned away from the window and returned to his desk. For several seconds he sat and pressed his eyes closed, remembering the torn limbs and sobbing at the site of the confrontation.
But they had one, and most people in the know understood that Senator Heathridge had been instrumental in that success. Theirs had been the first Village in the Zone, and the good Senator had seen it successfully protected.
For himself, Senator Heathridge took some of the fertile lands South of East Providence as his estate in the aftermath. The population wasn’t high in that area at the time, but the Senator had believed that the growing demand for food would quickly pull people into his agricultural ventures in the area. In addition, he spent quite a sum of money to build the only exo-suit factories in all of Zone 1. He completely dominated that corner of the market.
It had seemed like a golden goose that would never stop laying eggs.
On the expedition into the Raid Dungeon, every individual wore one of his exo-suits. And to the public, Senator Heathridge seemed like the main power broker in Congress. He only had a few dozen votes that he could control directly, but he largely sat between the liberal and conservatives on most issues, holding the deciding vote for himself. In addition, he was staunchly in support of businesses and had passed law after law to deregulate the entrance into industry after the System’s arrival.
He had seemed to be the most powerful man in Zone 1. And rather than savoring his success, the Senator had pushed all of his money back into research to create an even more unassailable foundation for himself.
But Senator Heathridge had made two mistakes that would ruin him. Or at least bring him to his current precarious position.
The first mistake was assuming that the current agricultural needs would be the same as they had been in the old Earth. This had pretty obviously not been the case. Even at the beginning, there had been signs that the money that Senator Heathridge poured into industrial-grade farming equipment was a mistake. But he had reassured himself that even if the equipment turned out to have been a bad move, the land would hold its value.
The fertile land was supposed to have been his long term insurance. But it had become almost immediately worthless.
Senator Heathridge looked up from his desk. “Margaret, did any mail come in for me?”
“Yes, of course.” Margaret got up and brought Senator Heathridge a manilla folder. “Should I open it?”
“No, it’s fine. This… is a personal matter,” Senator Heathridge said with an easy smile. Plus, he had no desire for either of their DNA to be tied to the parcel. Better to have Randidly Ghosthound open it directly with no other interference. With great care, the Senator lay the parcel down on the far side of his desk and returned to his bitter musings.
With the System, food could be grown practically anywhere in only a week’s time. “Fertile” no longer held any real meaning. Plus, all of the labor-intensive cultivation and care that a farm used to require was no longer necessary. When it took about ten minutes a day to maintain a farm sizable enough to support an entire family, all of Senator Heathridge’s agricultural investments quickly became sunk costs.
His second mistake was in failing to predict the almost inevitable plateau of the effectiveness of exosuits. Which, Senator Heathridge privately believed, could have been postponed somewhat if not for the direct interference of one individual: Randidly Ghosthound.
How long has he known about my efforts? Senator Heathridge wondered as he leaned back in his chair. How long has he schemed against me…?
Exosuits, while individuals were low Level, were extremely useful in boosting someone’s combat capability. They required a high level of technical knowledge to create and maintain, but the boost they gave to people from Level 20-40 was very real and useful. The small number of sales that continued to trickle in was exactly individuals around that Level trying to boost their Leveling speed.
Unfortunately, around Level 40 people’s bodies became just as powerful, if not more so depending on an individual’s Class, than an exosuit that could be made with average materials. There were exosuits made with high-quality materials, of course, but they were precipitously expensive to make due to the many almost microscopic components that also needed to be made from difficult to work with materials.
So they had considered scrapping the delicate components altogether. But without the microscopic components that added the various functions, an exo-suit was just a suit of armor.
Which Donnyton could make so much more cheaply and quickly.
In addition, the series of runic Engraving methods spread by Randidly Ghosthound quickly highlighted another weakness of exo-suits: if the components were destroyed, suddenly they were reduced to suits of armor that required you to practically buy another exosuit in order to replace the broken part.
The energy transference runes revolutionized the industry by making those sturdy shielding metals that usually protected the inner workings also function as a redundant method to code instructions into a machine. Simple Engravings on the surfaces could vastly increase performance and also ensure that each piece of the suit would continue to function even if all the Engravings around it failed.
Senator Heathridge’s people had made several mock-ups of exo-suits that were just armor with Engravings, but he had quickly intervened personally and put a stop to that line of research. If Senator Heathridge had gone that route, he had no doubt that copycats would spring up like lice on a beggar to capitalize on the very cheap turn around of that method.
As it was, it hadn’t yet occurred to anyone other than Donnyton’s elite forges that such a thing could be done. To Senator Heathridge’s relief, Engravings were currently seen as something relatively expensive for drones or high-end armor. So there was still a market for the exosuits into which he had invested so much time and capital.
But it was like building a huge shopping center and only having teenagers come to spend money. Money was money, but no one with any real money bothered to come. They could get higher quality products elsewhere.
Of course, the true killing blow to Senator Heathridge’s influence came from Senator Firefly’s rapid rise to power. Although they had never really stood at odds with one another, the mass rush of people to the Orchard quickly made Senator Firefly’s constituency count for one-tenth of the total population of Zone 1.
When Senator Firefly spoke, people listened.
Worse, Senator Firefly had moved very quickly to the liberal voting block and dragged quite a few of some of Senator Heathridge’s old allies with him. With the votes at his disposal almost halved and the strength of the liberals growing, Senator Heathridge had to choose either throwing his lot in with the conservatives or risk being written off as irrelevant.
He had chosen irrelevancy. After all, he was quite deep in debt at this point and needed to first address the problem of funds before he could return to the zenith of his power.
So Senator Heathridge had spent the last year struggling to maintain his reputation and desperately building up goodwill with some very key Senators in the various blocks. While he truly had no real resources or support to give, he maintained a facade of having his finger in a dozen different pots. He regularly visited and spoke with the higher ranking individuals in Zone 1’s military and industry to maintain an illusion of influence.
For now, it seemed to work. But very soon, the principle on his loans would come due; he could only make interest payments for so long.
So Senator Heathridge had found himself in a strange limbo. It was true, many individuals owed him favors. And Senator Heathridge could utilize those favors at any time to get an edge in business and political dealings. Yet it was a matter of leverage at this point.
Because he had tied up so much of his money in the agricultural and exo-suit projects that had practically turned to ash in his hands, he had basically no money remaining to sink into other ventures to make back what he had lost. Sure, he could learn about buy-outs and deals ahead of time by relying on his network. He could probably even make as much as 50% profit in a few short months by being savvy about it.
Yet what would his allies think when he was only able to spare a few thousand dollars toward projects that they each had sunk millions into? They would undoubtedly wonder what motivation could Senator Heathridge have for offering such token support.
At best, they would assume it was done for political reasons to show outward support, but the small monetary amount had been chosen to send a sharp sort of message to the recipient of how Senator Heathridge really felt about an issue. At worst, his contemporaries would sense something was amiss and might begin to investigate what was going on with him.
And that is exactly what I cannot afford: an investigation.
Senator Heathridge could only stay the course. He cultivated an insightful and circumspect persona to explain why he so rarely acted these days. He became a passive force that traded on information. Although his influence waned, Senator Heathridge was able to maintain the long and intimidating shadow he had cast in the past.
Behind the scenes, Senator Heathridge had sent what little money he could to East Providence. It was from that small amount he could spare that the happy discovery of the Cyclops Initiative originated, but that would never be a source of revenue. It was a weapon on the same scale of a nuclear bomb, built on the System’s principles. But it didn’t help him in the slightest re-establish his credit.
All the while, he had been desperately looking for a cheap way to take control of a venture and develop a legitimate revenue stream that would breath life into the Senator’s financials. That was why he had fixated on Erickson Steel. Even while Randidly Ghosthound was away, the company had a core group of technicians and engineers that produced an extremely high-quality steel.
Despite Senator Heathridge’s initial reluctance to involve himself in the workings of Randidly Ghosthound, he couldn’t deny the draw of the company. Through some very meticulous research, he was confident that he had been able to estimate the amount of revenue the business generated.
The amount was staggering. So much so that Senator Heathridge had checked his estimations several times before he believed it. Sometimes, it was easy to overlook the volume of steel that the company shipped out. If he was able to take a controlling interest, it would solve all of his problems at once. So he had gotten involved with Evan Crane to act as his hands and began making life difficult for Erickson Steel.
His initial nudged hadn’t slowed the company down at all. It had already built up too much momentum to be swayed by individuals. Eventually, Senator Heathridge was forced to reluctantly use some of his political connections to pass a few laws that would have severe repercussions for Erickson Steel while appearing to be about a completely different issue.
At the time, Senator Heathridge had considered it his nuclear option. It was embarrassing to need to rely on law in order to curtail their activities. In a way, he had felt extremely bad for Erickson Steel.
Yet even with those laws restricting them, the company stoically endured. For the first time, the Senator was able to see why Evan Crane was so obsessed with the place. So they went back to the drawing board and created an even more intricate plan to exert pressure on several fronts at once.
And then Randidly Ghosthound had come back to foil every one of Senator Heathridge’s plots.
Shaking his head slightly, Senator Heathridge moved his untouched cup of coffee to the side and began to steadily sort through the papers he had gathered on his desk. Present before him was all the information that could be gathered about Randidly Ghosthound. Interviews, news reports, military briefings about his exploits, signed business documents… it was all there.
Senator Heathridge had been studying it for days, trying to predict how the man would respond when he used his prepared leverage against Randidly Ghosthound. Would he get angry? Would he grin and bear it and get revenge later?
By now, it was clear to Senator Heathridge that Randidly Ghosthound’s goal was to make Erickson Steel the world capital of New Earth. Honestly, that outcome was extremely desirable for Zone 1. If it happened, Senator Heathridge would find a dozen of ways to profit modestly. So it wasn’t as though the Senator wanted to prevent it.
It was just that now that the Senator truly understood what Randidly wanted, he could make the man pay for it. To do any less would just be bad politics. Knowledge was king in this world, and Senator Heathridge finally had the edge of having nothing left to lose.
But for some reason, the Senator’s instincts were warning him of something. So he had studied Randidly’s files again and again. He had made several plans and back up plans to deal with the fallout. He had even provided Evan Crane with an experimental exo-suit that should make him the next best thing to invincible.
Senator Heathridge hadn’t known what he was looking for, but he sure as hell knew what it was when he found it. And honestly, it was staring him in the face: a request by Randidly Ghosthound himself to alter the wording regarding the legality of mineral extraction in their lease contract.
Randidly Ghosthound planned on naming a world capital and then stealing it later.
To what end, Senator Heathridge didn’t know. But it was enough to know that the generous and charitable exterior that was shown to the public was not the true Randidly Ghosthound.
“So underneath what you seem to be… what sort of man are you truly…?” Senator Heathridge grinned at his files. Then he made a call to his exo-suit factory and prepared to make a trip to the Erickson Steel compound personally.