Back at Haven, several hours later, Aldrich stood in V's underground, fortified server room.
A floating screen in front of him played the news, showing off the only light in a vast room of cooled darkness.
A pretty, suited up reporter pointed at a map of the United States where several glowing red patches were marked indicating variant energy signatures.
The title under the reporter read: VARIANTS RETREATING?
"Variant activity worldwide has been on the decline, which comes at a great and much needed surprise after the Locus Raid the week prior," said the reporter. She closed her eyes solemnly. "An attack on a scale that has never been seen since the Monstering itself."
She shuddered at the word 'Monstering', for even now, the generational trauma associated with that word was staggering.
"Various variant behavior experts and researchers have analyzed the sudden retreat of variant forces, some saying that it is simply a warning for more to come, others saying that heroes and military forces have thinned enough of the herd to drive others back.
Alternatively, a new 'Thanatos Theory' has arisen that's starting to gain more traction. I'm connecting here with Dr. Vannous, head researcher at the VMI (Variant Mind Institute), and current leading proponent of the theory."
A screen appeared at the bottom right, showing Dr. Vannous at his desk. He seemed to fit the archetype of an intellectual well, with horn-rimmed spectacles, bright, intelligent green eyes, and slightly head forward posture that made it clear he spent quite a bit of time looking down and reading.
"Dr. Vannous, can you explain the Thanatos Theory to the public?" said the reporter.
"Of course, Cindy, it would be my pleasure. As you all know, I was one of the leads on the team that formulated the Hivemind Hypothesis, particularly when it comes to Locuses," said Dr. Vannous. "I won't go into the details to bore everyone watching, but prior research has indicated that the Hivemind is reasonably intelligent and above all, cautious.
We've seen this before when Sheshanaga Biotech developed the Indraastra, an Anti-Variant gas-based biological weapon.
When unleashed on a A rank disaster Geist attack in Mumbai to devastating effect, all Geists in that entire section of the country, whether they were involved in the attack or not, retreated back to Deep Wasteland territory.
This leads me to believe that Thanatos's ability to control Locus O11 showcased a powerful threat to the Hivemind, prompting a similar retreat."
"Intertesting, then will this go the same way as the Indraastra? Sheshanaga touted it as the be all end all solution to destroying all harmful variants, but within months, the variants evolved against it," said the reporter. "Will the same happen with Thanatos?"
"That's what I would like to know," said Dr. Vannous, pushing his glasses up. "The Indraastra's continuously self-evolving viral load was meant to counter variant adapatation, but that obviously ended up not working.
In fact, it bred a strain of super Geists in India that to this day are resistant to any and all diseases.
However, the nature of Thanatos's power is unlike anything the world has seen before. It isn't simply biology or even conventional Alter power. It defies all conventions.
Can it defy variant resistance?"
'Yes it can,' was Aldrich's mental response. He did not know this for sure, but he was fairly certain. If the entity could just adapt against Aldrich, it would not have called for a ceasefire.
Aldrich's power was on the same 'tier' as the entity's own, both being from the Outer. Thus, one could not simply overpower the other. The reason why Aldrich's necromancy could dominate the entity's control over variants was likely a matter of specialization.
The entity could control a vast number of variants and create and evolve them. Aldrich's necromancy was more focused on taking control of the dead. If both Aldrich and the entity had 100 equal stat points to distribute, the entity had spent just 10 on 'control' while Aldrich spent more like 50.
They had the same amount of stat points, but Aldrich was simply more invested.
"That's a difficult question to answer without being able to study Thanatos's powers directly," said Dr. Vannous. "The VMI has extended an invitation to Thanatos for a study to that end."
"Oh? And has Thanatos responded?"
Dr. Vannous shook his head wistfully. "Not yet. But it's understandable. Thanatos is a new Sentinel in contention with the United States. I'm sure he has plenty on his hands to deal with already."
He stared at the camera, or rather, at Aldrich. "But, Thanatos, if by any chance you're watching this, know that we at the VMI will welcome you with open arms. For humanity's sake, let's
figure this variant threat out together."
"Thank you, doctor."
"A pleasure." Dr. Vannous disconnected.
"Now, moving on our financial expert Aaron and his projection of the markets now that the variants have retreated…"
Aldrich swiped the screen, sending that news channel away.
V whistled from the ground where she sat cross-legged and hunched over as always. "Now look at that, big boy Thanatos is the main reason all the world's variants are shaking in their boots. Or scales. Or whatever."
"It's just a theory," said Aldrich. "And why didn't I get mention of this invitation?"
"You kidding me?" V blew a bubble of gum and popped it with some annoyance. "You're on the world wide stage now. You get, like, a thousand requests to meet you a day.
From country leaders, random companies, mercenaries wanting a stable job, and this doctor dude, you think he's special?
He's like, one out of a bazillion research centers that have tried to get a hold of you.
Imagine the clout one of these science festivals will get if they literally solve the variant crisis with you."
V sighed. "But yeah, I should be keeping you on top of everything. Issue is I'm not all that specialized for sorting through info. I'm good at infiltration. This boring work - no offense to Fisk, I offload most of this to him and his team - isn't my style.
I guess what I'm really saying I sorta want someone else to help me."
"I'm looking," said Aldrich. "But you know it's hard. If I'm hiring, I need to vet them thoroughly, and they need to be loyal enough to work with me for a lifetime.
It's easier for me to raise an undead at this point, but it should be obvious why I can't just assassinate a high end techno and kidnap them."
"Yeah, pesky public image stuff." V shrugged. "Downsides of being on the world stage, I guess. It's harder to get away with things compared to being in the Underworld.
Plus, I'm going to be real busy with this guy for a while."
V jutted her chin forward, pointing to Desmond. He was plugged in a techno-chair meant to help technos when they used a lot of processing power by cooling their internal temperatures to prevent their brains from literally frying.
From his head, a cable extended. A bundle of V's technopathic hairs.
"So, do you think you can take control over his network of spiders?" said Aldrich.
V shook her head. "That network's gone already. He had a deadman's switch that killed them all off if he ever got jacked.
I did actually develop my arachnophobia jacker with a dead man's switch in mind, but it was only to stop Desmond from deleting any information he had stored.
I didn't know he was straight up willing to kill off his entire tribe if he ever lost control. Shit, that's heartless."
"It comes with unhealthy paranoia," said Aldrich.
"Reminds me of a certain someone," teased V.
Aldrich raised a brow. "Are you talking about me?"
"Maybe. But you've gotten a bit better on that end. You're a little more relaxed now. Maybe cause you've got a nice girl with you, hm?" V smiled.
Aldrich remembered how heavy the weight on his shoulders felt after meeting the entity and knowing the fate of the world stood on him. He remembered also how much lighter he felt when Valera said she would be there for him no matter what.
"Potentially," said Aldrich.
"Aw, come on, you're a total tsundere type, aren't you?" V grimaced. "Damn, now I sound like Fisk."
"…" Aldrich ignored her. "If Desmond's Spiders are all dead, the news will echo to the Italian Prong soon enough. I can have Feather pretend they're still alive for a while, but that'll only last so long.
This will spur a reaction from the Italian Prong, no doubt. What I can't afford is the Italian Prong getting cold feet on maintaining the Blackwater attack."
Vexa's butterflies now comprised a careful spy network over Blackwater and its surrounding areas, and they reported that troop buildup for all three prongs of the Trident were increasing considerably.
The Italian and Japanese Prongs were closer to Blackwater and had taken up residence in Blackwater at this point, fortifying it as if for a siege.
Which meant that the Russian Prong was going to be at a disadvantage trying to break in.
All this happened under the radar of the world with the AA unable to deal with villain related activity with variant attack threats and the Panopticon still downed.
Granted, now that the variants were retreating, it was possible that the AA could
start investigating the area. That was where the Blackout came in. A high level Blackout from Emrys himself would prevent any heroes from interfering with the conflict.
The only wildcard here was Solomon Solar who was deep in bed with the Trident.
Aldrich still did not know where Solomon stood in this conflict. Despite the buildup of troops and the impending conflict, Solomon had not made any move himself. Even now, he was doing a PR tour where he handed out water to a tier 3 city way up north that got leveled by the Locus Raids.
Was Solomon going to fight?
Or, to be more specific, would Aldrich have to end up fighting him?