Aldrich sat in the cushiony confines of a luxury private airjet. It was ARMA Black-grade, the color designated for specialty commissions based manufacturing for higher end clientele. ARMA was leagues behind Imugi as far as the higher end of their tech went, but the thing about ARMA was that it had no real pride.
It did not care whether it sold to the lowest beggar or the richest wealthmonger. It tried its best to satisfy both. Granted, there was such a thing as stretching yourself out too thin, and if ARMA had focused on trying to satisfy everyone on every socioeconomic rung, it would have failed long ago.
ARMA succeeded because it knew how to hedge its bets for expansion. It knew when to fill in power vacuums at the right moments.
Its Black grade department started up five years ago when the leading high end war manufacturer in the states, Aztech, went into a decline after a power struggle between heirs that split the company down in two, severing its firearms and vehicle departments.
And now, its new superhero group, the Guardians as it was called, was getting more traction in light of the AA's recent decline due to its mishandling of the Locus Raids and the Judicata attack.
"We're bringing power back to the people!" Tychus, CEO of ARMA, bellowed out with a confident grin slapped across his chubby face. He spoke from the confines of ceiling mounted telescreen that Aldrich paid half-attention to.
A sea of reporters surrounded Tychus outside ARMA tower, located right in the heart of Neo-York, the biggest city in the United States. "Ain't no more will the ordinary joe be shit outta luck when their neighborhood assigned hero's off doing something else. With the Guardians, based on your subscription tier, you're guaranteed a hero to come to your aid, no matter what! Ain't no need to rely on a big, faceless agency anymore!"
Tychus droned on, and Aldrich shrugged. He had looked in briefly at Tychu's new league and found it less than revolutionary.
The main marketing tactic, it seemed, was to capitalize on people's desire for security. Guaranteed security. Something the masses rabidly wanted after the Locus raids.
Even with scientists and governments reporting the retreat of variants, the masses were still terrified, scarred by recent losses by an attack that had no equal for over fifty years.
The system Tychus proposed was consumer friendly, with the lowest Guardian package, the so called 'One Star' package, being as cheap as 200 hundred credits a month.
The tradeoff was, of course, that the hero response time guarantee was longer, being at thirty minutes compared to two minutes for the highest Five Star package.
The packages could also be upgraded with medical and evacuation add-ons that added medical and evac support along with the heroes.
Provided Tychus could cultivate enough hero talent to pull this off, the idea was to individualize hero security and give everyone a fighting chance.
The AA-Panopticon system focused on broad public safety with a perfect willingness to sacrifice the lives of the few for the many or, in many cases, the lives of the poor many versus the wealthier, more 'valuable' few.
Aldrich wondered what Tychus had up his sleeve to make this work, though. He would need an absolutely massive hero network on top of an incredibly refined surveillance system to make good on his promised response times.
But given Tychus's recent track record, it was safe to say that he was not moving without a somewhat stable plan in mind.
Regardless, it did not relate to Aldrich much. It was something he just kept up with more out of interest than anything.
"Ah, I see, so it is like assigning a guardian knight to everyone?" said Valera. She was seated beside Aldrich, a glass of complimentary red wine in her hand from an extensive cellar located within the walls of the jet.
She looked up at the telescreen with interest, acclimating rapidly day by day to the technology of the new world, though no doubt, her mind melding with Aldrich by being his Chosen helped her adjust too.
"Basically, yeah, that's one way to think about it," said Aldrich.
"It seems woefully unrealistic." Valera shrugged. "Not all lives are worth the merit of a trained fighter."
"That's exactly the line of thought that's giving Tychus support. Granted, it's reactionary support for now, but who knows how it'll end up. Everyone wants to feel special. Protected. It's only natural."
"But what is natural is not always what is right."
"True." Aldrich sat in thought for a bit. He did not partake in any of the snacks or drinks on board because he had Volantis on him. "Like most things, there needs to be a middle ground. Control versus freedom."
"I do not know. Perhaps it is because of my heritage, but I have always believed in hierarchy. There are those that are special, and those that are not. Those that are high, and those that are low," said Valera. She swirled her wine about in her glass. "The special controls the flow of the mundane. The high dominates the low. The few reigns over the many."
"That's how things are now," said Aldrich. "Panopticon at the top, then the governments and corps below them."
"I am still not familiar with the system too much. It seems so overly complicated. I do wonder." Valera cocked her head and looked at Aldrich with a mischievous glint in her red eyes. "What if we cut down the 'few' even more? What if the 'few' became 'one?' Would that not lead to the most stability? The most order?"
"It depends on who that 'one' is," said Aldrich, but he knew exactly what she was insinuating with this. She wanted him to be the one. The one to control the world. And, with the way things were progressing, it was looking increasingly like he had to assume the reigns.
Granted, he did not know how to feel about it himself. He was not repulsed by the idea as some would be, nor was he chomping at the bit to get at the reigns. He stood firmly in the middle.
His human conditioning, starting all the way from when he was a kid, when his parents taught him what heroism was meant to be, told him that something about the idea of one man seeking world domination was inherently villainous, inherently wrong.
But then there was his current self. A self-conditioned by years of reality and now, Lichdom. When he saw humans as units, resources, it felt obvious that one high mind was the most efficient.
"I know exactly who the 'one' is," said Valera. She smiled at Aldrich, her expression naturally seductively convincing, perhaps because she was a vampire.
"I know. I do too," said Aldrich. He loved and respected his parents, but ultimately, he did not share their ideals. He was his own man. No, not a man anymore. Something greater. He had no illusions about being the one to rule the world; it was something that he would do if the opportunity arose.
"But I'm working with what I have. If I could be the one, I would, but I can't very well decide to do that right now without making an enemy out of everyone. So, for now, cooperation it is."
"Soon, that will change," said Valera, nodding. She clenched a fist in front of her, showcasing her resolve. "And I will do everything in my power to make sure that change happens."
Aldrich nodded in response. She was referring to the Blackwater attack, where the machine heart was. Once he got that, the idea of ruling the world separated from the realm of dream and into the plane of reality.
Granted, the machine heart alone was not going to be enough, but it would be one big step forward.
Aldrich still felt the weight of responsibility, of bearing the fates of many, on his shoulders, but he was a being of duty. He stepped up to the challenge at hand, and he never, ever broke down. If he had even an inkling of that kind of weakness, he would have shattered years ago when his parents died.
If he was to bear the fate of the whole world, then so be it.
'This whole villain-world domination talk is cool and all, but I'm interrupting here to let you know that the landing's soon, said V. Her voice crackled right into Aldrich's brain. It was no ordinary ear commlink, but a modified version of a device called a technolink.
Technolinks were the hardcore version of ear commlinks, being tiny computers surgically grafted into the body permanently where normal commlinks could easily be slipped in and out once they were deactivated with a specific electric current.
They were meant to be used by heroes, villains, or mercs who had a dedicated techno to support them. The link acted as an access gate from which their support techno could directly operate, utilizing their powers and techno abilities remotely.
This proved necessary for V as she physically could not be with Aldrich most of the time, needed as she was under Haven's control tower to maintain net security.
In Aldrich's case, the technolink was grafted into his skull as any flesh implanted cyberware just disintegrated when he transformed into his lich form.
'That was quick,' noted Aldrich. 'Just an hour to fly from Haven to Neo-Seattle.'
'That's a high powered airjet for ya,' said V. 'Anyways, I've confirmed that nobody's been tracking this jet in realspace or cyberspace. The flight's been completely on the down-low. In other words, you're free to enjoy your dinner without any peeping toms.
Unless you consider me one.'
'Not at all. You're welcome in my head anytime,' said Aldrich. He rapped at the white painted metal walls of the jet. In response, large strips of the walls seemingly turned transparent, showing a crystal clear image of the outside.
He was atop a landing pad that was part of the much larger roof of an enormous mansion.