In Alex’s experience, people tended to treat ‘opportunists' like lepers. And he couldn’t really disagree with that treatment most of the time.
An opportunist tended to be bad to be around: they’d wait for any chance to advance themselves—often at someone else's expense—while pretending to be a harmless colleague, friend or ally as they waited for their opportunity to strike.
Alex was something of an opportunist himself: he adapted to situations and strategized, looking for the right circumstances to successfully execute a plan.
His revenge on McHarris was a perfect example: he’d longed for it for years, but waited to make sure he only sought it when he’d have the opportunity to enjoy it the most, while making sure that McHarris couldn’t retaliate.
But, he didn’t look for opportunities to benefit himself even if it hurt others—unless they hurt him or were really huge jerks—but he realized that this wasn’t the case with Minervus. His track record showed that.
The second year student had decided that abandoning his COMB-1000 classmates when he thought it would benefit him was the right way to go, then he’d tried to get those same classmates on his side during the vent-drinker wrangling class. He’d tried to convince Alex not to apply for the job at Shale’s so that he’d have a better opportunity to get it, but then had acted like a quiet, helpful coworker ever since. He’d even teamed up with Alex just now to battle the golem.
But now an opportunity to eliminate a rival had arrived, and the old Minervus was back out.
“There were no problems with the golem core’s pathways when it came to connecting the core to the lightning rods,” Alex said, slowly and calmly. If he panicked now, showed too much anger or got defensive, it’d just lend credibility to Minervus. He needed to be cool, calm, collected and have confidence in his own skill. “Everything went to procedure and your mana was running through the core with mine, Carmen and Lagor’s when we activated it. Did you feel anything abnormal?”
He turned things back on Minervus, but the young opportunist came back quickly.
“I didn’t, but I wasn’t in your section,” the pale, narrow-faced student said, looking at the dully glowing core in the iron golem’s hands. “I’m not saying you weren’t following procedure, I’m just pointing out that with your…lack of experience-”
Alex noticed his eyes flick toward Farro—the crafter that had made the core—as he said it.
“-that it might have been easy to miss something. You are a first year student, after all.”
“A first year? At Generasi?” Farro’s face washed red behind his moustache and goatee. He was a fine-featured man, and looked more like a rakish duelist from a stage play than he did a golem crafter. “Lagor, you let a first year connect the golem core to the lightning rods? Are you out of your mind?! It’s any wonder that the core didn’t explode and electrocute you all!”
Alex grit his teeth.
What he wanted to do was bring up that Minervus was responsible for the part of the golem core that engaged with the creator’s mental commands. That could allow him to counter-accuse him…but that wouldn’t solve the problem. It would be his word against Minervus’, until they figured out what actually happened. Minervus had more experience with golems and was in a higher year.
He could dig his heels in, and the emotional Farro would still likely focus on Alex for now. He didn’t want to do anything that would escalate the situation.
“Alex has proven himself a valuable member of my team,” Lagor growled, shooting a hard look at Minervus. “As has Minervus, as has Carmen. They worked well as a team, and reacted fast and together in the crisis. No panic, no show-boating. If it weren’t for them, your core would have let that golem do a lot more damage than it did.”
Lagor glared at the bent piece of equipment the golem had been preparing to throw. “A lot more. Lives might’ve been lost. Your core was drawing too much energy anyway. There was an imperfection in it, Farro: you gave us a rush job and then left us to clean up the pieces!”
“Me?” Farro glowered. “The core used more energy to start up because it had to power two third-tier lightning rods! I can’t exactly have it be as efficient as a messenger golem made of bloody balsa wood!” He glanced at Alex. “Alex Roth, am I right?”
“That’s my name,” Alex said cautiously. He kept his voice neutral. He didn’t want to start licking the crafter’s boots and begging, but the last thing he needed was to give the man more reason to focus his anger on him. He needed time to think.
“What’s your previous experience been in golem crafting?” Farro demanded. “Have you ever participated in the first time activation of a golem before?”
“This was my first,” Alex said. “So I followed Lagor’s directions to the letter.”
“No one’s questioning your ability to follow directions,” Farro said. “What I’m questioning is your qualifications for such a procedure!”
Alex glanced at Minervus.
He caught the tailend of a smile disappear.
He cursed inwardly.
This is exactly what that sneaky bastard had wanted. No matter how you looked at it, this had been a disaster and blame was going to be assigned for it. Farro would likely be the first candidate to have blame cast on him, and so what would the man do if he were suddenly presented with an easy target?
Well, exactly this. Blame someone else.
‘Well done, you bastard,’ Alex thought, bitterly. ‘But now what do I do?’
Turning things back on Farro would be a problem: a crafter’s assistant accusing a senior crafter? No way that would end well.
“I’ve worked with Alex since I was hired here.” Carmen was climbing to her feet and wiping sweat from her brow. “Both he and Minervus are students in first and second year, but they both perform their duties like they’ve been working in the field for years. They know what they’re doing, and I’m willing to vouch for that.”
She looked tired, but was uninjured even as Shale’s medical aides sped through the throng of gawking staff, and went to her and the others who’d fought the golem.
‘Yes, thank you Carmen!’ Alex thought, using the precious moments she’d bought him to think of a way out of Minervus' trap. His mind worked as the medical staff carefully examined the lot of them.
“I’ll vouch for him too,” Lagor said. “I interviewed every member of my team and judged that they were ready for this step. What about you, Farro? I understand that two of your assistants are missing tonight. Means you and your lone assistant must have rushed to finish up by tonight. With just the two of you... Liable to be mistakes made.”
“You’re accusing me,” Farro said flatly. “After we’ve worked so well together.”
“We all make mistakes,” Lagor grunted. “Why pretend we don’t, when you know it happens? Then sometimes we make ‘em again, especially when we’re hurrying. Except they might kill us next time around.”
“I agree wholeheartedly, ” Farro said. “But I’m telling you, I didn’t make a mistake. The golem core was functioning as intended. Someone must have made a mistake in the activation process. I know you’ve got strong control over constructs, so I doubt it was an error in your control, Lagor.”
Alex’s brow furrowed, thinking of all the factors.
Lagor’s anger had focused on Farro and on a potential flaw in the core. It made sense: the golem had nearly killed him. Minervus had focused them on Alex as a scapegoat, accusing him of making a mistake.
He didn’t think he’d made a mistake. He called up The Mark: it showed him an unbroken line of images of himself powering up his section of the core. There was nothing in The Mark's detailed memories that indicated any mistake on his part.
So what was going on?
If the core wasn’t the problem and he hadn’t made a mistake, what could have happened? The golem body? No, Lagor, he, Carmen and Minervus had built that carefully. They’d made many golems together and none of them had ever gone berserk before, either during testing in the workshop, or after they’d been delivered to the customer.
Alex paused, glancing at the body again.
“Wait!” Alex said. “Could there be something wrong with the lightning rods?” he asked quickly. It was the one factor they weren’t talking about. “It did go crazy once it tried to use them, right?”
Lagor paused, then grunted and walked over to the golem. Farro fell silent, and followed the orc-crafter. Lagor stepped up to the clay golem, and cast a spell. His hands began to glow with a green light. They melted the clay wherever they touched the body, causing it to run like hot candle wax.
His hands sunk into the arms of the inert golem and drew out the lightning rods. The crafter’s face took on a look of deep concentration, and Alex watched intently as he examined the rods with mana manipulation. He swore under his breath, tossing them to Farro. He examined them as well, then gasped.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought,” Lagor said, glancing at Alex. “Good suggestion. Saved us time.”
“What, what happened?” Alex asked.
Carmen was watching with interest, and Minervus had gone very quiet.
“These lightning rods have been tampered with,” Farro said, his face washing red with rage. “This would look bad for Shale’s!”
“Tampered with?” Alex blinked.
“Yeah,” Lagor grunted darkly. “The spell arrays are altered slightly, just enough to misalign the mana circuit. They were fine when I first received them: I examined them visually and tested them, and they were perfect.”
“The spell array seems to have been changed to increase the misalignment over time,” Farro said. “It was done in such a way that it wouldn’t be noticeable at first, then at some point, the rods would malfunction and blast out in all directions, electrocuting the wielder. Likely to death. It looks like what happened was that the rods blasted through the golem’s body, wrecking a number of pathways and shaking your control, Lagor. Then the golem reacted to what seemed to be an attack.”
“Is…is someone targeting the shop to cause problems for Toraka Shale?” Carmen asked.
“Maybe…” Lagor looked at the inert golem. “But, the rods came directly from the client with instructions to embed them in the golem. I have no idea where they got them from: maybe whoever sabotaged those rods is targeting them. Either way, we’re done here. We stop all production for the night and catalogue all of our materials, then investigate this. Everyone’s doing overtime, and you’ll get your proper pay. I want to make sure nothing else in this shop has been tampered with. After that, it’s time to report this to the city.”
The inspection lasted until well after sunrise. Every single piece of equipment, material and tool was catalogued, and an in depth examination was done for possible sabotage, but no other items in the workshop showed any sign of being interfered with.
As the morning wore on, the city investigators arrived and questioned everyone involved with the incident, including Minervus.
The narrow-faced young man had dropped all accusations after the revelation that the rods had been sabotaged. That said, he hadn’t escaped a very harsh lecture from Lagor about accusing a teammate before the investigation had even started. Alex smiled at that, but his smile faded quickly
He had to admit it, what Minervus had done was cunning: he’d been able to come up with his accusation on the spot and take advantage of a situation that just happened to present itself.
What was key though, was that he hadn’t overplayed his hand. There was no falling apart by trying to convince Farro and Lagor repeatedly of his point, which would have removed his own credibility in the process.
No, when it was clear his moment had passed, Minervus had once again become the helpful crafter’s assistant that was doing his best to aid everyone else in the shop. He’d played his hand, didn’t get what he wanted, but in the end, lost nothing. He had gotten a lecture from Lagor and a warning, but no greater punishment than that.
Of course, his accusation would make any marginal trust gained from them working together grow worse, but Alex doubted he’d care anything about that.
The problem now was, when would he do this again?
That was the one of the problems with opportunists: just because an opportunity to get what they wanted had passed, didn’t mean they wouldn’t try again when the next chance to benefit themselves came along.
As Alex finished his shift—and was told how much his overtime pay would be, a small consolation for the night—his eyes followed Minervus as he packed up, checked his golems, and then made his way out through the back.
Frowning, Alex quickly gathered his supplies and followed.
He saw the four of them heading through the alley toward the street, and trailed them, using all the stealth craft he’d trained through The Mark.
When Minervus was close enough to the street, he called out to the young man and jogged up behind him. The three golems and their master all turned at the same time, and with the same speed. Alex caught a brief frown on the other student’s face, which quickly washed away.
“Can I help you?” he asked in a neutral tone.
His golems leaned forward slightly, almost like a prelude to aggression.
“I just wanted to ask you something. But, keep in mind, we’re pretty close to the end of the alley, so you’ll have to keep your voice down if you don't want anyone to hear what’s being said.” Alex said as he reached Minervus.
Minervus glanced back over his shoulder at the morning crowd and his eyes narrowed.
‘That’s right,’ Alex thought. ‘I dunno if you’d go so far as to attack me when we’re alone, but understand that people would hear the commotion.’
“What do you want to ask me?” Minervus finally asked, clearly impatient. He looked tired. They were all tired, though.
“Why did you pull that crap in there?” Alex pushed. Granted, he knew exactly why Minervus pulled that crap, but perhaps he could get a clue about what he would try in the future if he at least asked the question.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Minervus said.
“Oh come off it, man, I know you don’t want me there. You don’t like me and want me out. Why?”
For a moment, Minervus looked genuinely confused. “Don’t like you? I don’t really have an opinion on you. If anything, you work well and we work well as a team. That’s all that’s required of a coworker.”
“We did work well as a team,” Alex pushed harder. “We helped get control of the golem together and we did good work. So why are you trying to throw me under the wagon? If you think I work well, then why all that stuff with your bullshit accusation? Why do you want me gone?”
Minervus sighed. “I don’t know why you’re making such a big deal out of this. You want to be promoted, right?”
Alex blinked. “I don’t know-”
“Oh, now you come off it.” Minervus frowned. “I’ve heard about your accomplishments in first year: that level of work isn’t done by someone with no ambition. So, you want to rise in the workshop and it would suit me very well if I were to rise in the workshop first: ergo, even if you aren’t gone, it would be good if the higher ups were to remember your inexperience when it comes time for promotion.”
Alex’s jaw clenched.
It was about what he’d suspected. That made the snake standing in front of him very dangerous. Any mistake he could pin on him he would. He’d have to think of a way to get around this guy, as well as ways for more than a little revenge.
“And what if I tell Lagor about this little conversation?” Alex asked.
“About the conversation that no one else is hearing?” Minervus asked. “Well, I haven’t said much. I brought up your inexperience in good faith. That’s it. We then talked about wanting to be promoted. So, with that in mind-”
Minervus glanced to the end of the alley. “-I’m going to go home and sleep. Then I’m going to use my days off to relax in the countryside and visit one of the wonderful food festivals: winter sausages you see. You, on the other hand, can think about whatever you think this was all you want. Good day. Or maybe I should say good morning to you. I’ll be looking forward to our next shift.”
With a nod, Minervus turned and stepped out of the alley, flanked by his golems.
Alex’s jaw clenched.
Work had just become a lot more dangerous.
Mana vampire in the city and countryside, Minervus at work…danger of different kinds everywhere.
Well, at least school had been fairly safe lately.
“I do believe you are all ready to take on the xyrthak, one of the most dangerous denizens of The Barrens,” Baelin said from the front of the class.
‘Whyyyyyyyyyyy!?’ Alex screamed internally.