Chapter 347 Despair, Ye Mighty
Aldrich watched as Bart left without glancing back. There was too much on the man's shoulders to be caring about how Aldrich thought about his sudden exit. Outside of the dining room's doors, Hirondelle and Walters escorted Bart out of the room where he would take a secretive back exit to an awaiting ride out of the city.
Nobody knew Bart was here. He was a CEO, after all, and showing up here was bad press. Like he said before, Haven was a no touch zone for most companies, especially those that relied on the U.S. for profit.
Hammerhead Industries was already taking a beating profit margins wise, and Bart did not want to fan those fires more by making his appearance here public.
But the simple fact that Bart had taken the risk to show up here in the first place, to even make the preliminary contracts with Haven, showed just how much he was invested.
And, now, Aldrich knew why. Bart was not looking for profit. No, he was looking for something far, far more precious than that - his daughter's life. The contrast was jarring compared to Aldrich's recent conversation with Aarav.
One powerful CEO sought profit above all else, sowing discord among their children just for the sake of extending their lives so that they could grasp onto power for as long as they could.
Another CEO valued profit and power but, in the end, understood the difference between what was profitable and what was important.
Power corrupts. That was the saying. One he believed in whole-heartedly, seeing the golden age of heroes dwindling and the rise of Alters that did nothing but mistreat him as a pure human.
But he was starting to see that it was far more nuanced than that. Power did not corrupt so much as it revealed and amplified what was there. If what was there was already rotten, then it festered. If what was there was good, then it shone.
What was within Aldrich? His use of power had killed many, and at the same time, it had saved many.
Was he rotten, deep down? Or could he shine?
The reality was, like the reality of many things, somewhere in between.
And, Aldrich knew, so long as he met his goal of saving humanity, it did not matter what was inside him. Rot or shine, as long as it got the job done, he was fine with both.
But he was starting to realize that in matters of family, especially between parent and child, he had more 'shine' than 'rot.' He empathized more. It was, he understood, one of the main anchors that rooted him to his sense of self, preventing him from drifting away into an immortal monster.
While Aldrich contemplated, Volantis moved on his own, sending out strands of metal to pick up food on the plates, devouring them.
'Delicious!' exclaimed Volantis. 'Humanity has learned well how to prepare their foods, I see. Nothing beats the feeling of tearing raw flesh off fresh bone, but this does come quite close.'
"You can thank Casimir later," said Aldrich. "As far as I'm aware, he does half the cooking personally with a lot of his staff gone."
"Hoho, he is a man of many talents, I see."
"Right." Aldrich let Volantis devour all the plates of food before he exited the room himself, making his way through the main dining room full of round tables covered in clean white cloths and decorated with fine, glinting silverware and elegant wineglasses.
There were no customers at this late hour - it was approaching midnight - but Casimir's staff still fluttered about.
Some of Casimir's higher up staff, demarcated by a red circle on their black and gold uniforms to show that they were longtime servers, trained new servers on how to arrange tablecloths, fold napkins, hold serving trays, respond to inquiries, and so on.
At another section of the room, they trained servers on how to quickly draw firearms and reload at a moment's notice.
Casimir was rebuilding the men he had lost in the Red Circle attacks. He handpicked who he took in, and most of them were quite young. Teenagers who, Aldrich realized, had the markings of loss carved into them, in the form of wounds, in the form of unsmiling faces and cold eyes.
These were people who had lost everything in the Haven attack. People that Casimir wanted to build back up to give purpose.
Among them, Aldrich recognized a few from the Haven shelters. When they say Aldrich, or Thanatos as they recognized him, they gave acknowledging nods, parting before him like he was a reverent, godly figure.
Aldrich returned their nods and went over to the back of the building, into the spacious kitchen. There, he found Casimir washing dishes while Smoke and Cubehead, his other two higher ups, swept the floors for food debris.
Cubehead had, as his name suggested, a black cube for a head, and Aldrich wondered briefly whether it was a helmet or his actual head. Smoke looked more normal. She was a tall, athletically built woman in a grey and gold streaked bodysuit. Though she held a mop in her hands, on her back was a sheathed odachi that looked long enough to slice a man in half.
"Ah, Mr. Vane, or, rather, Thanatos, a pleasure to see you again!" said Casimir, his rolled up sleeves baring surprisingly developed forearms riddled with old scars and covered with bubbling suds. "How was the dinner?"
"It went well. I think," said Aldrich.
"You think? Such uncertainty is uncharacteristic of you," said Casimir. .
"It's his daughter. Bart wants me to heal his daughter."
"Heal? Does he understand-,"
"Yes, he does. He knows she has to die first. But he believes that her condition is bad enough that resurrection is better than what she's going through now. He'll send a file detailing her exact condition later."
"Ah, I see." Casimir stopped washing dishes for a second, nodding. "The love of a parent to a child, it is incredible, is it not? So many of our primal instincts are fierce and dark and savage, but that is so very pure, so very selfless."
"Yes." Aldrich remembered the unconditional love his parents gave him. Even to this day, it was perhaps the warmest memory of his mortal life.
"I myself cannot have children, but I consider all those around me, my dear staff, to be my own," said Casimir.
"..." Aldrich asked a question that had been on his mind, one that he had skirted around for some time. "Casimir, what exactly is it that drives you to my service? That you would be willing to give up the lives of the men and women you consider your children for?"
Aldrich of course knew that it was mind control. But Fler'Gan's mind control was hypnotic suggestion. It did not brainwash, but rather suggested the mind to think a certain way. There was still thought there.
He wanted to know what Casimir's justification was for being in Aldrich's service.
"Why, you ask? I wondered that myself," said Casimir. "When I first entertained your party at the Red Circle, I understood that it would necessitate a great sacrifice. The blood of my children. My entire criminal enterprise, gone.
Yet, I still went through with it. At the time, I had little justification for it. I simply felt compelled to do it. In fact, were it not for one thing you said, I may well have even refused."
"What did I say?" said Aldrich, concerned. He did not know Casimir had been able to resist the hypnotic suggestion to the extent he could consider flat out rebelling against Aldrich.
All this time, he had thought Casimir was entirely on his side.
"You said you would change the world," said Casimir. "And that, my dear Thanatos, has always been my dream. From the times I survived on the streets with hunger and cold filling my belly, sleeping in gutters, all I could do was look down at the dirt, for that was where I thought I belonged.
At one point, though, I realized I simply could not exist like that, in the dirt, mired in there, wasting away to perish like so many others.
So, I began to look up. I started to see that the world that had been cruel to me from the start could be changed.
Step by step, piece by piece, effort by effort. And thus, I started to rise. I rose in the Underworld, allying with the Trident.
The Trident promised a change in the world as well. A great revolution to take down the current world order and replace it with something anew. I wished to be a part of that.
To topple the stagnation of corporations and heroes and Panopticon control that ensured humanity's survival, but nothing more than that. There were still countless many like me who languished in the gutter, always looking down, never having the opportunity to look up even once.
But as years passed, I realized in the end, the Trident and the AA are simply two sides of the same coin. Hero or villain, it does not matter. Self-preservation, credits, status, position - they only cared about this.
And that bred fear. Aversion to risk. An unwillingness to change a world order that benefited them.
I became jaded. In the end, I was but one man, a man who had built a small kingdom for himself, but I was no Ozymandias. No king of kings. I could not tower over the world and proudly proclaim 'despair, ye mighty!'.
Rather, it was I who despaired.
I did not have the power to reach further, no matter my efforts.
But you did. And you promised change.
That was enough to compel me, and now, I am starting to see that compulsion, I shall call it a stroke of luck, has borne fruit."