Satisfied with his knowledge within the forest, Randidly expanded his Plant Dominance to double its previous size. Then he doubled it again and doubled it again. Finally, Randidly pushed with all he had, and for a brief moment, every plant in the Zone stood a little straighter, channeling his energy.
Letting out a long breath, Randidly felt the throbbing in his head that indicated that he had run out of Mana. Even with his enormous pool, it wasn’t enough to fuel a connection with so many plants at once. More than that, it was a strain on his mental strength, even with high Control and Focus. There were simply too many variables. But this was the best way that Randidly had discovered to ferret out information.
It was only a general thing, but Randidly could easily combine it with Aether Detection, scanning a wide area, if just briefly. The results were confusing, but they would give him a lead if there was one. And after checking…
Randidly’s expression turned grim. It was just a general feeling, a vague thing that he couldn’t put a finger on. But the flood of information given to him by all those plants confirmed one thing; the Creature had touched this Zone.
Even with his prodigious Control, it took Randidly several hours to sift through the information he had received; there was simply too much of it to handle with any efficiency. Even when he found traces of the foreign Aether that revealed the Creature, they were only wisps, only small echoes. The Creature here was covering its tracks well.
With a sigh, Randidly opened his eyes. Simply too much ground and his initial scan was too large and general. There was simply too much ground to cover, and he couldn’t uncover anything specific without a more focused search. And as there wasn’t enough evidence to point to an area, Randidly would have to manually spread his Skills over a smaller area in the future in order to find something.
Just as he was about to leave, he noticed that one of the people on the secret farm complex was wandering in the woods. Curious, he drank a Mana potion and activated Plant Dominance again, using their queer senses to feel this body.
As it turned out, it was a small girl, sitting and crying. Ostensibly, she was lost.
Sighing again, Randidly reached out and arranged roots to appear before her, creating an arrow that pointed back towards her camp. She gazed at it solemnly for several seconds, before getting up and following the direction it pointed, tottering through the dark night. Although he couldn’t actually hear, the vibrations produced by her sniffles were clearly transferred through Randidly’s plants. He set up more arrows and then left the girl, hoping she couldn’t get herself lost again.
For the morning, he could probably get another 50 or so ingots done, and then for the evening, Randidly supposed he would be going to a party.
After selling another batch of ingots to Foreman Davey, Randidly abruptly realized that he wasn’t sure what the man did with the ingots. Was he one of the oft-discussed drone creators? If he was, he didn’t spend much time actually making drones, as most of it was spent here, gathering materials from the workers.
These past two weeks had seen an increase in the number of workers at the factory, and almost ¾ of the workrooms were now full. Luckily, most people stayed in the smaller workrooms, but there were others that had moved up to the larger volume ones, as Randidly had. He was keeping careful tabs of their production, and used that to determine how many bars he could release without causing undue note.
It honestly rankled. Besides giving Randidly a more personal way to gather information, this party would also stop him from producing more ingots that he would inevitably need to save for another day before he gave to Inspector Davey. Holding himself back like this was tiresome. Hopefully, the oversight would be less when he had Probationary Citizenship.
There was also a growing black market for metals, and also different men who whispered of cheaper raw materials from unofficial sources. It was almost fascinating enough to pay very close attention to the shift in culture because the changes were so strange.
Because right now there were a lot of desperate, talented, determined people who wanted something, and there were unscrupulous people willing to profit off of them. As it became increasingly clear that they were getting exploited, there was a growing surliness to the workers. Their Skills were increasing, and as they were doing that, their sense of entitlement also grew.
Not that it mattered much to Randidly. There were several ringleaders emerging amongst the steelworkers, who would take a reduced payment to give the same benefits of Skill and recipe knowledge from the factory. This was explicitly banned, but it was almost impossible to enforce, so it happened quite frequently.
The new batch of young-ish metalworkers looked to these ringleaders, and these ringleaders were some of the first people there, who recognized Randidly as one of the more successful of them. When the ring-leaders passed Randidly and nodded a curt greeting, they learned to do the same.
Several had come to Randidly asking to be his apprentice and learn from him, but the whole thing felt unnecessary, considering his goals. But at the same time, there was another part of him that remembered his role in Donnyton as a guiding force and missed that experience. But again, there was only so much he could feasibly do without at least hinting that he was more than just an average guy with a knack for steel working.
There was no harm in waiting, so wait he did. Opportunities would continue to come, he had no doubt.
Right as Randidly was walking back to the meeting spot the greasy man had indicated, he froze. Should he have… worn something different?
He looked down at himself: leather shorts, bare feet, and a scuffed and burned t-shirt. Randidly scratched the back of his head. It wasn’t like he didn’t have better clothes, but… This was a very serviceable outfit. He had three pairs of the same thing and took it to the washers every couple days to be washed for a few dollars. It made him look like a working man.
After a bit of thought, Randidly produced a pair of darker leather pants that he had received from some nice old man in Donnyton, and a forest green shirt. It wasn’t so fancy that it was uncomfortable, but it also wasn’t just a workman’s shirt. All in all, Randidly was quite proud of himself.
It wasn’t the finery that he had seen Donny strutting around in, but he also didn’t seem like he was an Alana type, that spent all his time working without a thought to aesthetics. Even though he knew in his heart that Alana learned those habits because she was so furiously chasing his Level of strength…
Randidly shook his head, and then slapped his cheeks. No point in dwelling on that now.
Now was time to be charming.
There was a squirming feeling in his gut.
Ricky Stain smiled, pleased with his small kingdom.
Although he had struggled for a year just to obtain his Tier 1 Citizenship, in this small steel working community it was like a king’s crown. Everyone treated him with respect, and those who didn’t were thoroughly taught a lesson by those who did and wanted to earn a few extra points with him.
Because of his citizenship, he had access to raw materials and areas that the others didn’t and with the information he had, he began leveraging his already respectable savings. Within a month, Ricky had become a local Hegemon and was now spreading his fingers more actively into the darker side of the business boom.
The truth was that Ghost wanted drones, and he wanted people working to make them and improve their own Skills. Because the directive came from Ghost, a lot of the military was very hands-off in their handling of the metalworking community Ricky dubbed Stein. In fact, aside from the wandering sheriff or ranger, there were only two police officers who were regularly within Stein’s limits.
And those visits were weekly, at best.
As such, a rough sort of hierarchy was already starting to form. Ricky intended to be on top of it. Which was why he was throwing this party, hoping to rope some of the influential workers in more fully and to pry others away from the influence of the staff at the factory.
Because aside from Ricky and the military, there was a third faction here: the so-called “Analytics Team”. This was headed by an annoyingly present man Foreman Davey. Ricky had some thoughts about striking against the man, teaching him a lesson, but the rumor was that he was above Level 30.
Ricky shivered. He didn’t mind offending some citizenshipless individuals, but a Tier 1 citizen that was Level 30… Ricky wasn’t so far gone to think his influence could intimidate that man. And who knows what forces Ghost had put at his disposal.
No, better to attempt the soft method, and go for the workers.
There were 5 that he was interested in specifically. Tooya and Diego, a pair of tan-skinned brothers who had been particularly recalcitrant to his advances, but were both known to be womanizers. A tall, grey-haired woman named Sonya who had a dozen or so female assistants, offering them shelter from the harassment of the male-dominated factory.
There was a suspicious old man named Gregory, who would only smile in the presence of money. And finally, there was the intense, pudgy man Baloo Erickson. Each individual had their own benefits associated with them being pulled into Ricky’s sphere of influence, but Baloo’s was the most compelling. The man had been selling his unique Erickson Steel for a few days, and already some outside sources queried whether they could get it for cheaper than the exorbitant $20 an ingot that Foreman Davey was selling it for.
Around Ricky were tables of food, some musicians, a few of his preferred cronies who looked the right mixture of intimidating and enjoyable for a party, and several women hired from an escort service run out of West Providence. The guests would be arriving soon, so Ricky snapped his fingers and the girls moved out, talking with some of the men, while others began dancing to the music.
It had to be fun, it had to be enjoyable.
It had to be alluring.
Smiling dreamily, Ricky imagined that tonight would be a night he wouldn’t forget. The night that Ricky became the Steel Baron of Stein, and everything finally fell into place for him. He couldn’t imagine what could go wrong.