The first thought Randidly had when he walked in was that the lights were too low. Normally, this wouldn’t be a problem at all for him; his Perception meant his gaze focused at a speed that changes in lighting barely affected him. It would need to be pitch black for him to be blind. But the rest of the guests didn’t share his Stats, and therefore there was a cluster of people right outside the elevator who were blinking uncertainly as they walked onto the top floor to see the venue.
Snorting, Randidly grabbed Tatiana’s hand and pulled her through the press of bodies to walk out into down the hallway and onto the rooftop bar. It also was a nice reason to ditch Henrik. Randidly had no doubt the other man would track him down sometime, but it would be a brief break that Randidly sorely needed.
If that man asked one more question about the functions of the drones…!
The second thing that Randidly thought was that aside from Senator Firefly’s ballroom, this was the nicest place he had ever been.
The tables were sleek and dark on the rooftop, lit by small candles in the middle of glass containers blown to look just like a flame. It gave the lighting a primitive feel, but the base of the tables was heavy mahogany. There was a weight to everything that was slightly surprising.
All around, people who had arrived earlier glanced up at Randidly and Tatiana’s entrance. Very quickly, most of them looked away; no one recognized the duo. A few of the men’s gazes lingered with some hint of lust, but they too looked away more quickly than Randidly would have expected. But then again, every woman at this party was beautiful. Perhaps-
Then Randidly shook his head and bit his lip. Thinking along those lines was incredibly shallow, and he felt slightly guilty for reducing Tatiana to just her looks. But Randidly supposed that was just the kind of place this was. A place where all that mattered was power and sex.
Ignoring most of the people, Randidly let go of Tatiana’s hand and walked to the edge of the balcony. The city spread out below them, glittering and bustling. When he had arrived, Randidly had looked around and could find no traces of poverty in the city limits. Although he had been hustled straight to a relatively well to do part of the city, it still made him uneasy.
Because below amongst the lights, the poor were working to service the rich. Restaurants were humming with activity, the manatech rail system continued to operate well through the night. But these homes… This was a place for the upper class.
Randidly sighed. He understood why he had previously wanted to come here. But being here, he was immediately reminded that around power there was rot and sloth. It would undoubtedly be much harder to find information than he would like. But still, he needed to make an attempt.
It would just be a long night.
When Thaddeus Hatch walked out of the elevator with a bored expression on his face, he immediately detected that something was wrong.
Tables at events like these were a matter of status. There wasn’t an assigned seating per se, but they inevitably became arranged by the hierarchy of power amongst people as the night went on. Traditionally, people would mingle and talk until someone with clout arrived and arrange themselves around that person. They were generally a guest of honor and would signal that the coy banter part of the night was over, and business could begin to happen.
Thaddeus had been to a dozen or so such events in his time in Zone 1; they all unfolded the same way. It was only an hour after the charity event had started, they haven’t even moved to the banquet hall yet. Most people should be clustered around the elevators, or at the bar. People should be faking pleasure and offering each other manufactured smiles. The knives shouldn’t emerge for another hour.
Or at least, they should wait until he arrived. The political forces should marshall themselves around him. After all, Thaddeus Hatch was the guest of honor.
It was pride speaking, Thaddeus knew. But it was earned. In Zone 1, he was a legend. The man who was Level 49, although freshly so. He was the Spartan Shock Trooper, the most powerful of Zone 1’s four heroes.
Three now, Thaddeus amended mentally as he walked forward. The initial forays into the borderlands were unforgiving, and two of the four had died. Only one individual of merit had risen to join Thaddeus and the Hyper Pilot at the top of the pile. And that man was basically just chosen to fill out numbers and inspire hope.
No, in all of Zone 1, Thaddeus was confident he was the most powerful Classer. Which meant he was the most powerful of anyone. Well, perhaps Zone 32 possessed its own warriors of a similar caliber. But how would of any of them arrive at this puny charity function?
Calmly, Thaddeus walked forward through the empty hallway to the tension-filled balcony. He was not angry, of course, but was rather pleased. The only reason that he had come to this thing was due to the insistence of his sister. Now that it appeared someone else had taken center stage, he would have some time of anonymity before he was inevitably recognized.
As he walked onto the balcony, Thaddeus was amused to see that not a single table was unoccupied. It mattered little, people would move when they saw him. A quick glance gave him the lay of the room rather quickly. It seemed that West Providence had set up shop near the edge of the balcony, overlooking the city. The hardline Citizenship Tier party remained near the bar, snappish and angry that the relatively lower Tiered scientists believed they could dictate the seating. The moderates and military personnel filled the middle space, while celebrities hired to entertain walked through the press of bodies and tried to ease the tension.
Thaddeus grinned. Curious.
He arrived at the bar and ordered a drink. The bartender took a step back when he spotted Thaddeus, but Thaddeus just put a finger against his lips. Very quickly, the man got the idea. Good, Thaddeus wasn’t above sneaking away and breaking the man’s jaw for ruining his fun.
Intrigued by the strange standoff on the balcony Thaddeus turned back to the group of people and focused on his Enhanced Awareness Skill. Immediately, the discussions became more understandable and distinct.
“Honestly, I think the bartender was hitting on-”
“Taxes! It’s about taxes! The refugees don’t have money, so-”
“What is this charity event for, anyway?”
“-but the performance! Gentlemen, these drones will revolutionize-”
“That’s her, over there in the shimmery dress. The fool doesn’t know when to take a hint-”
“-I’ll see you later tonight-”
“Your drink, sir.”
With a smile, Thaddeus took the drink from the bartender and turned back to the people. Most of the conversations were trash, but there was one that had an edge of excitement that intrigued him. It was the one about the drones, and when Thaddeus focused, he recognized the speaker: a man named Henrik, who was an important researcher in the drone initiative. Based on some of the people standing around him too, he was the one who started the seating. All were arrayed around him. Curiouser and curious-er.
Thaddeus would not have expected that man to make such a bold act. But perhaps the desperate straits of the drone initiative prompted him to do so. Sales were not good, because the products were subpar. Until they could give a drone worth a damn, people would continue to lose support for it, for all that it brought jobs into regions that were struggling economically. And where the drone initiative was doubted, so too was Ghost himself.
It was politically awkward for the Citizenship hardliners because their arguments were based upon Ghost’s value, but they would dearly love the drone initiative to fail. But Thaddeus supposed it was a bland, if understandable, explanation that Henrik was here and started the seating in order to spread the word of whatever small success they had experienced.
Feeling disappointed, but curious, Thaddeus focused his senses in Henrik’s direction.
“The vanity of the rich, mostly. But I believe the charity associated with-” Thaddeus cut out the people speaking behind Henrik, and focused in on him.
“I don’t want to overstate its success… it needs to be tested in the field.” Henrik said, but his eyes were bright and the man was sweating from excitement. “But our projections have it as an extremely efficient bit of machinery. Against monsters below Level 40, I have no doubts it will perform splendidly.”
“Bah, so what,” Another man said. He was a military man by his look, but not one that Thaddeus had worked with. Someone low ranked, then. “The problem was never making a powerful robot, it was making something that was dependable. With high Vitality scores, people are even cheaper to rely on than machines. Plus, they can grow. Why switch to drones now? A misguided effort.”
There were mutters of agreement from others, but Henrik just chuckled.
“Bah, these are more than a replacement for soldiers. Even our strongest soldiers, the three that you military men worship, have their limits. Sure, those three are strong enough to defeat one of the drones, but how about 10? 20? 100? These are able to be produced at a scale and speed that people can’t match. And they are expendable. I dare say the blueprints for these drones are far more valuable than even the Spartan Shock Trooper-”
There was a sound of tinkling glass. Still grinning like a madman, Thaddeus looked down, almost surprised to discover that he had squeezed until the glass shattered. His hands were unharmed, obviously.
He looked back up at the silent crowd, who all turned to face him. Mildy, he said. “Oh? Tell me more, Dr. Henrik.”