They had basically reached Randidly’s fake home when he realized that it wasn’t a coincidence that she was following him. Feeling largely awkward that he hadn’t acknowledged her before now, Randidly turned around and regarded Tatiana. Truly, she looked extremely out of place in a steel working town like this. He supposed that it made sense for her to hang around Washington D.C., where she would need to interact with the nation’s elite, but the System had made a farce of her presence here.
She stopped as he turned around, regarding him with the same wariness that she had shown before at the party. There was a wall there, one that he didn’t fault her for. He was a strange individual, and he had certainly participated in some strange and violent situations. Even more worrisome, he suspected that she had the angle and a sharp enough gaze to catch some of his interference with that poor fool Derek.
To Randidly’s surprise, she spoke first. “Why did you save him?”
Randidly blinked, then laughed. Her expression darkened as he did so, so he stifled the laugh as best he could and kept it a chuckle. “They would have killed him if I had not. Humanity has a lot of enemies. It’s easy to forget it here, but… we don’t have enough wiggle room to waste effort on internal struggles. And… I believe a human life should always have inherent value. I protected a life; need I more justification?”
Something in her face eased as he was talking, although he couldn’t determine what of what he had said had reached her. She simply nodded, breathing out a long sigh. Feeling an oncoming silence, Randidly galvanized his meager social skills and said, “So… how are you doing?”
Instantly, he winced, because it sounded just like a cheap come on. But this seemed to just make Tatiana sag further. Expelling another sigh, she looked up at him and said. “You certainly are more than I expected. It… hasn’t been good. I suppose you’ve heard that the edges of a suburb were reported to be sighted to the west? Until further notice, I am to remain here and scout new arrivals to the Zone for our…business.”
Tatiana gave Randidly a penetrating look. At that moment, he felt like she was looking with every ounce of effort she had, trying to penetrate and see what lay underneath the surface of him. What sort of character was he?
Randidly didn’t blame her in the least. He felt abruptly self-conscious that he was ostensibly a simple steelworker, but he remembered that he had gone along with the line that he was also a former front military fighter. In addition, he wore a strange combination of leather and denim that would have meant he was a biker prior to the System’s arrival, but in current Zone 1 just made him look… savage.
Obviously, his feet were dirty and bare, the skin callous and browned from long years now without shoes.
In addition, Randidly made a mental note about the expanding Zone. If what Tatiana was saying was true, there would be what might be a large population boost coming into Zone 1 in the recent future. Which meant two things: that military forces might be heading in this direction, and also that there might be population boosts in Zone 32 as well. The first was a headache, the second was oddly intriguing. Snuffing out both trains of thought, he focused on the task at hand. For now, he planned on conducting another search for the Creature tonight. Other things could wait.
To his surprise, Tatiana’s gaze turned soft as she finished her examination. “Look, thank you for interfering at the party. Just as a warning, that Tooya might be a nameless prick, but on his friend’s list is someone with real clout. Even my partner is scared. If they come after me, they sure as hell would come after you.”
Randidly frowned, and Tatiana had a knowing look in her eye. But Randidly suspected that she misread the reason he was upset. Obviously, dealing with almost anything a single person could throw at him would be relatively straightforward. The problem was that this unnamed individual might use government forces to deal with him. Which might bring him to Ghost’s attention.
Inwardly, Randidly made another mental note: construct a bucket list. This bucket list wasn’t for before he died, but what to do immediately, should he ever be discovered by the Zone 1 government. Item number one was to have an interaction with Ghost, to determine his connection with the Creature.
Snapping back to the present, Randidly said, “So you will be in the area for a while?”
Tatiana gave him a wry smile. “Why, do you plan on asking me out?”
Instinctively, Randidly chuckled. When was the last time he had time for flirting? Helen, likely, and that had ended-
Abruptly, Randidly realized that Tatiana’s face had gone strange. He felt a flash of panic. “Oh, not that you aren’t someone to ask out, you’re very striking. It’s just-”
“It’s my fault for making a poor joke. Ha, I can’t remember the last time someone called me “striking”… you are a strange mix of things, Mr. Baloo Erickson.”
Smiling, Randidly said, “You can call me-”
Then he stopped. Instantly, his high Intelligence and Reaction both rose and started firing on all cylinders. He was about to say Rand, but that was too close to his real identity. And it wasn’t like his name was common enough for it to slip by in conversation. So, he went back to the original inspiration for his fake name, with his Stats being so high that Tatiana likely didn’t even notice the hitch in his speech.
“Viking. Or V. It’s a nickname.” Inwardly, Randidly burned red with shame. Did he really just ask an attractive woman to call him Viking?
“…Viking…” She gave him a frank look. “You don’t exactly, uh…”
Randidly looked down at the belly conjured by the illusion. He was about to say something when he realized that the corners of Tatiana’s eyes were crinkled up with humor. He cleared his throat.
“Well, it’s not raiding season, so I might have let myself go. A bit.” Randidly said matter of factly.
Tatiana burst out laughing.
Afterward, both agreed to keep in touch while they were in the area, and went their separate ways. To Randidly’s surprise, Tatiana went farther West, out past the edge of town. Shrugging, he went inside his little shed; he supposed it didn’t matter where he did his scans. So he settled down and gathered Aether to himself.
To start, he repeated his previous huge expenditure, spreading his reach over all of the Zone. As his Mana burned out quickly, Plant Dominance extended rapidly outwards. It wasn’t something that most people would detect. He didn’t use it to move the plants, but Randidly couldn’t discount the possibility that his use of the Skill would cause a ripple to spread outwards, the moment the Skill touched the plants. Still, he believed it was worth it. He needed information.
Again, the time after the scan was about two hours of sifting through information. This time, he ferreted out the Creature’s touch rather quickly. Its particular brand of Aether stuck out among the others. Randidly’s gaze sharpened. It was even more widely dispersed now. What did it mean?
The rest of the night, Randidly sent directed pulses of Aether to sense certain areas of Zone 1. He started with the military and political headquarters while staying away from the West Providence, where Ghost was working out of. To his surprise, Randidly wasn’t able to detect anything in any of the military or government locations that he checked.
That was interesting. So the Creature had no direct hand in the UHF, for all that meant. That was basically a puppet for Ghost anyway. Randidly was tempted to move directly onto scanning Ghost’s area, but he was still wary. Best to wait another day, when he had more Mana and wasn’t already exhausted. There was no real hurry, as far as Randidly knew, although it was difficult to remain comfortable when an enemy he had clashed with so many times was lurking around him.
Sighing, Randidly leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. One thing at a time, he could only do one thing at a time. Focus on that task, sharpen his mind to it. Only with 100% of his will behind it would he get the best results.
The spear can only move forward.
Abruptly, Randidly chuckled. It had been a while since he had thought about Shal, and his advice. But reflecting upon it, there was a lot that could be gained from using the principles he had learned from Shal, and Aemont. Especially now, when he was attempting to formulate a Skill. There was a particular resistance to it as if his Aether knew this had already occurred, and it was unwilling to move in the same shape. Forcing it didn’t solve the issue, so Randidly was interested in softer methods.
So, for the rest of the night, Randidly produced the Diary of the Spear Phantom and read from it. By the end of the night, his eyes were glowing with a bright emerald light.