Chapter 295 Familiar Faces
Aldrich sat in the depths of the Crypt oncemore, though, soon, he figured he was in for a quick ride out to his hearing. Anticipation coursed through him with a buzz not unlike adrenaline.
This was it. This was where he got onto the world stage. Where he made his name. Where he really got to start throwing around his power and making change, real, large-scale change.
So far, Aldrich had dealt with problems in the shadows, plotting and building himself up discreetly. Because of that, he could choose his targets and his enemies.
Soon, though, that would all change. As a player on the world stage, he would make enemies no matter what. Now, the dynamic was flipped. He was the one shining in the spotlight, and lurkers in the shadows would target him.
Aldrich wondered how he would handle that dynamic. His entire life, he had been a nobody. A Dud. An existence that nobody gave a second glance to. Yet soon, not a single pair of eyes that mattered could afford to ignore him.
'I sense rising tension within you, Armored,' said Volantis.
"Do you know? It looks like our link has deepened," said Aldrich. Before, Volantis could not sense Aldrich's emotions, but now, like Valera, he was starting to connect with Aldrich at that level.
'It was only a matter of time. I imagine the commander will be displeased that another bonds with you like this,' said Volantis.
"Probably. She can get jealous."
'The more the merrier, though! To share oneself to others close is a wonderful thing. And to that end, I must ask, will you not draw another Chosen from the Nether?'
"Not yet. I want to do that after I'm on the world stage. I'll have a better idea of what I need then." Aldrich looked at the back of his gauntleted hand. When he willed it, he could see the thirteen pronged branch glowing against his the back of his hand, through the armor.
Neither the Death Lord nor Medula had sensed this. Aldrich had wavered on whether to tell them about it, but he had decided against it for now. There were things that the Death Lord was hiding from him that prevented him from being too open.
What, exactly, Aldrich did not know. He had already tried pressing her for the information, and she had heavily implied she did not want to give it. He did not want to press too hard, either, for it was true that he benefited from her generosity.
And, for now, Aldrich was secure in the safety that his fate and that of the Necropolis were inextricably intertwined. There was not one without the other.
'A strange thing, that is,' said Volantis. 'Thirteen branches. Two marked with circles like fruits. I cannot fathom it.'
"Can you sense anything about it? With your energy reading vision?"
'No. It utterly escapes me. In that sense, I do know something: it is not of the Elduin realm, for if it were, I could grasp it.'
"I see." Aldrich nodded.
His current hypothesis was that this was something that originated from a realm entirely foreign from either the Alter one or Elduin, which would explain why nobody could figure it out.
But then why was it on Elaine's server? How had it transferred to him? What did it do?
'At the very least, I can assure you that it is not causing you harm,' said Volantis. 'Reading your energy flow shows stable readings. There is nothing in disarray.'
"Right. I can't say I'm a fan of mystery like this. Not knowing - it's a pet peeve of mine. But without more clues, more information, there's no point grinding my head against an impassable wall," said Aldrich.
It was then that Aldrich heard rumbling from above. The sound of whirring engines traveled from the top of the Crypt down to Aldrich, pinging off crypt walls surprisingly well.
"And we have more immediate things to deal with." Aldrich stood up, the metal of his armored body creaking. He had absorbed Wai'Ki's illusion of Volantis, taking in its memories, and found nothing of note.
22, the guard stationed above, had never once made contact with the illusion. The only thing that ever got down here were supply packages which the illusion, as commanded, dutifully always sent back up to notify the authorities that would be that 'Aldrich' was still there.
'Time to take the world by storm!' said Volantis, his mighty voice ringing in a roar in Aldrich's head.
The ceiling of the Crypt began t slide open with a loud, metallic groan. Aldrich looked up and smiled. "Yes."
On his transport, Aldrich sat across from two familiar faces. Colonel Davos and Aarav Singh.
"I'm getting a sense of deja vu here," said Aldrich. He looked down at his hands. They were not cuffed. Nor was he in a Null Box. "Though I have to say, having fewer chains feels much better."
"Can't parade you in there in chains, not with social media raving about you and the world wanting your powers," said Davos. "Scientific community wants to put you under a microscope, too. They've saved a few of the Locus corpses from the coordinated attacks to see if you can do anything about them."
Aldrich perked his helmeted head up. More Locus corpses for him to raise? He could not have asked for a better out of jail gift.
"That is, if your hearing goes well," said Davos.
"Which it will," said Aarav.
"I have reports indicating that the initial support movement for Thanatos was strangely coordinated." Davos crossed his muscular arms as he stared at Aarav.
Aarav did not even glance back at Davos, puffing at a black tipped cigarette with cool poise.
"Bot accounts on social media, visibility algorithms on media sites paid off so that only good news showed, and the like.
Typical astroturfing. But on a scale that only someone with billions could afford it.
You wouldn't have anything to do with that now, would you?" said Davos.
"Hm? Why would I? It's in human nature for people to look toward a savior. Is that not why the hero industry is big enough to treat some governments like a piece of old gum under their shoe?" Aarav shrugged.
Of course, Aldrich knew that Aarav had been behind all of this. Aarav had probably spent several million credits at the very least on what was basically a concentrated PR campaign, making sure Thanatos was seen in the best light possible.
Aarav was not lying when he said he was betting his whole hand on Aldrich.
"Whatever." Colonel Davos rubbed the bridge of his nose, closing his bright red eyes. He had dark lines under his eyes, showing that he had been working overtime.
"Where's my guard?" said Aldrich. "22, that was her name, wasn't it?"
"Oh, 22? She's on an assignment somewhere else. Fortunately for you, you've been demoted considerably as a threat."
"More attacks?" asked Aldrich.
"No. 22 doesn't handle hero jobs like that."
"Then Irregular activity?"
"I'm not authorized to reveal that."
Aldrich remembered the branch symbol on his hand. Perhaps the Irregulars Department had an idea about it. But he did not trust the government yet.
"So many secrets. This is why nobody trusts the government." Aarav reached into the breast pocket of his cheap, patchmark sewn suit and tossed a phone to Aldrich. "Read through that."
"Says a corporate slime like you." Davos eyed Aarav with dislike.
Aldrich read through the phone. On it was a neat report that first showed what Aarav had done.
It showed various news media articles about Thanatos, most of them positive, most of them greatly awaiting the hearing.
The hearing was to be livestreamed as well, and already, several hours before it started, the stream had hundreds of thousands of viewers. It would probably explode to millions when the start time neared.
Current public consensus was that Thanatos was practically guaranteed at the very least an A rank status in the AA and special privileges for his team and controlled variants.
About 74% of polled individuals were even in favor of Thanatos becoming a Sentinel if it meant he could use his powers to drive the variants back. That was an incredibly high rating.
For reference, Dracul, the latest Sentinel, had a 60% approval rating from the public to be a Sentinel, and he was considered a once in a generation hero who had taken down an entire member of the Dark Six solo.
Of course, in the end, public opinion did not influence whether Aldrich became a Sentinel or not, but it certainly did help put pressure on the AA, governments, and the Panopticon.
The second part of the report detailed Haven's current status. Aarav had stopped the Panopticon's plans to demolish the city by negotiating various rebuilding projects.
The Panopticon did not have the authority to bulldoze damaged cities that had solid plans to rebuild, and Aarav's money made those plans very, very solid.
Not to mention the Sunshine Foundation, Solomon Solar's charity, had to keep their support for Haven. Otherwise, Solomon would tank a PR hit for leaving a broken city he had promised to help.
Of course, Aldrich had basically manipulated Solomon into doing that, and that showed in the fact that Solomon was donating just the bare minimum to not look bad.
But the money did not matter. Solomon's name as a S class hero mattered more, and having that attached to Haven gave it a boost in the public eye.
Overall, things were proceeding quite smoothly. And in large part due to Aarav's efforts.
Aldrich was fully ready to piece together Haven scrap by scrap, using force if necessary to gain Sentinel status over it, but Aarav had paved an easy mode road with funding and social media popularity for Aldrich to work with.
Then, the report transitioned into news of Sheshanaga Biotechnology. The CEO had made his hunt for immortality public. This was a message to Aldrich.
It meant that soon enough, Aldrich would be needed to fulfill his end of the bargain.
To help Aarav kill his father.
"I see." Aldrich tossed the phone back to Aarav. "Anything else?"
"No, that's it. I look forward to seeing this play out," said Aarav.
"That, I can agree on," said Davos.
"You seem friendlier than before, colonel," said Aldrich.
"Because you wouldn't go to these lengths, making sure the public liked you, rebuilding that city, if you didn't care about humanity," said Davos. "And that's all I really cared about."
"I see. Like I said before, I will try to help," said Aldrich. "In my own way. Without a collar or chains."
"I hope so." Davos looked away, up towards the ceiling. "I have a gut feeling that sooner or later, we'll be needing all the help we can get."