“You were right,” Senator Firefly announced. “To think I doubted you. If not for you… I would never have started this city for refugees they now call the Orchard in my honor. I apologize for that. You have my gratitude.”
Randidly shrugged. He hadn’t realized that Neveah had been the one to push for this refugee camp, but it made sense. As he looked through her memories earlier, he had seen many instances of her helping people and building. She had chosen to dedicate her time to helping these people, and that was something that Randidly could appreciate.
Honestly, aside from the marriage proposal, Randidly was impressed by everything he had seen from Neveah. He didn’t quite understand why she would now want him to walk through this role she created, but he was willing to give her a bit more leeway.
Senator Firefly continued calmly to speak. “As you know, my status as a Senator lets me view some of the analytics data that Ghost gathers on different populations in the Zone. Imagine my chagrin when that strange being reported that according to his observations and self-reporting, Skill Leveling in the Orchard is about double as fast as the rest of the Zone. Part of that is the training courses you created but in the words of Ghost…”
The Senator trailed off as he produced a piece of paper from his pocket. He adjusted his glasses and frowned down at it before reading, “…’there seems an intangible difference in outlook that both raises the willingness to work in these humans, and also gives an amorphous but undeniable increase in the rate of Skill growth.’ Now, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but for them to grow at double the rate of the rest of the Zone… and to feel deeply indebted to you and I… Well, it makes all the money I’ve poured down the throats of these miserable people worth it.”
Randidly’s lips twitched.
Neveah’s voice sounded in my head.
He is a foolish man. All things are toy soldiers in his eyes. But he can see the importance of intangibles. Plus, he was desperate when he came to visit me in my castle. He has been useful.
As Randidly regarded Senator Firefly doubtfully, the other man waved his hand in irritation. “Don’t make that face at me. I know how you feel about my… outlooks. But it is due to those outlooks that I’ve made it this far. They are part of my strengths, it is due to this way of mine I have climbed as far as I have. As they say, sometimes it is preferable to have a predictable enemy than a fickle friend. And I have been a predictable enemy to many.”
“I don’t think I’ve heard that before,” Randidly said, but Senator Firefly just chuckled.
“Of course! Because it is one of my own sayings. Do you like it?”
Randidly rolled his eyes, examining the beautifully manicured garden around him. The fireflies continued to however nearby. Without a doubt, Ghost had zeroed in on this role of Randidly as someone worth watching. That, if nothing else, made Randidly realize some of the value of having Neveah working out here, independently of him. It gave Ghost a focus.
“I have no doubt that Ghost is doing this secretly with his watchers,” Senator Firefly said, “But he has inquired your methodology in igniting the textile industry in the Orchard. The cloth they are producing is softer and stronger than should be possible, he claims. What a fool. Heh.”
Randidly looked sharply up at Senator Firefly. He waved his hand airily.
“Oh don’t say it. I’m not sure why you are so sensitive of Ghost, but he is just an AI. An information gathering tool used by the government. He won’t ever become more than that, not anymore. Already President Howard has turned against him. If not for his usefulness, he would be ousted very quickly by the Congress.”
Again, Randidly was taken aback by the senator’s casual treatment of a serious issue. “…Perhaps that is so. But most people do not think that Ghost is such a simple machine to dismantle. And the belief of those people is a dangerous thing for your opinion.”
Senator Firefly gave Randidly a look, then nodded slowly. “Hmm. I’ll keep it in mind. Would you like to return to the party?”
“No,” Randidly said, shaking his head. Neveah was right. If he didn’t want something, he shouldn’t force himself. Besides, he knew that if he didn’t return to the part, Tia would remain the center of attention. Perhaps she would be a little disappointed, but this was a domain where she would feel more at home. Randidly, either of their identities, didn’t belong there.
Instead, Randidly followed his memories and walked toward the Orchard, specifically the newer district where they were still performing construction. To his surprise, immediately after he arrived at the edge of the sprawling city, a group of people turned up in front of him.
“Mr. Ghosthound, did you see my new apple tarts? Here, try one.”
“Mr. Ghosthound, wait until you feel this. My silk has improved a lot. It’s like wearing the wind, is it not?”
“Mr. Ghosthound, thank you so much for your advice, I think that my new ice cream…”
And so on, over and over, a stream of people who came to thank him and provide new examples to Randidly. It was overwhelming at first, but soon Neveah began to speak, feeding Randidly the information he needed in order to respond to the people and make them feel heard.
Only four minutes after this stream of people arrived, a gaunt man with a large beard arrived, and he took Randidly away, heading to a construction site. Very soon, Randidly was raising metal beams and assembling a 20 story apartment building. It was honestly impressive because all of the work was done by men. They were so empowered by the System that they were able to reproduce the mechanical power of machinery from before the System arrived.
After all, most of the heavy machinery from before the System was lost in the initial chaos. It was now much cheaper to just have System empowered individuals work than to purchase one of Ghost’s expensive pieces of machinery.
With Randidly’s help, the building seemed to grow before his very eyes, assembled one piece at a time. By the end of it, everyone was cheering as Randidly held the steel beam aloft as two men on either end slide the nuts and bolts that would serve as a placeholder until the braces could be prepared.
Afterward, the gaunt man shook Randidly’s had and left without a word. The men and women who had worked on the project patted Randidly on the back and departed as well, leaving him alone in the strange half built district. It was now close to sunset, and the light filtered through the bones of the building in an exceedingly strange way. It came in beams and glow, so the whole place was suffused with an orange-red half-light.
And in that glow, Randidly saw a small boy.
The boy stood in the half-light, oblivious to Randidly’s presence. His cheeks were dirty and his clothes were worn, but it was clear that the clothes themselves were of high quality. And without sort of ceremony, the boy was punching a stone wall.
Pat. Pat. Pat.
His expression was scrunched up enough that Randidly knew the experience was not pleasant for the boy. But still, he had an unyielding determination. It was clear that in his mind he had to continue this action.
“You learned it from Shal, I learned it from you… and now with your face, I am teaching them.” Neveah said, walking up next to Randidly. She was still in her true form, and in the half-light, she seemed more like the Raid Boss that she had inherited the body from than someone who had created a safe haven for thousands of displaced people.
Randidly turned back to the child. That determined look on his face… it truly reminded him of himself, struggling all those years ago under Shal’s wing in that first dungeon. This was the change that Neveah was working; she was giving people hope and tools to seize it.
Could Randidly do the same…? Perhaps. But he would need to sacrifice his other life, and he wouldn’t be able to do the same things that Neveah could. Her patience and endless energy to help people and try things far surpassed his own. Still…
“It was never a matter of whether what you were doing was productive,” Randidly said with a sigh. “That doesn’t matter to me. What matters is this engagement. After that comes marriage. Neveah… you cannot marry this girl. And I’m profoundly uncomfortable with you marrying her with my face.”
She regarded him carefully, but all she replied with was “Why?”
“Because it feels like she is not marrying you, she is marrying me,” Randidly said.
Neveah shook her head slowly. “I had hoped you would get a taste for Tia and understand why I went along with her misunderstanding. Or, at least I hoped you would get a feel for what I was doing here and want me to continue. But it appears we see things from a different perspective. That is okay. It is only because of the way you are that you accomplished so much. But now I must tell you something Randidly,”
Here Neveah paused and took a step closer to him, looking down at him.
“Although you are Randidly Ghosthound… you are not the pen that will write the legend of Randidly Ghosthound.”